Gap Analysis of Research Literature on Issues Related to Street-Involved Youth

2. Antecedent Family Background

2. Antecedent Family Background

The majority of sources surveyed describe virtually identical features for antecedent, or family backgrounds of homeless adolescents in both Canada and the United States: poverty, neglect, physical, emotional or sexual abuse by one or both parents, parental alcohol and/or drug abuse, parental involvement in and conviction for criminal behaviour, and generally conflicted and destructive home environments (see Canadian sources: Baron 1999; Brannigan and Caputo 1993; Caputo, Weiler, and Kelly 1994; Hagan and McCarthy 1994; McCarthy 1995; McCreary Society 2001; Weber 1991; and United States sources: Busen and Beach 1997; Clatts et al. 1999, 1998; Fitzgerald 1995; Kaufman and Widom; Kipke, Palmer et al.;; Rotheram-Borus, Mahler et al. 1996; Whitbeck, Hoyt, and Ackley 1999).

Fitzgerald (1995:718) remarks that the lives of street-involved and homeless youths (in the US) "…reflect the long-term and continuing effects of unsupportive, damaging backgrounds." McCarthy's (1995:47) Canadian data also demonstrate that, compared with youth in stable family backgrounds, youth who live on the street have "…disproportionately higher levels of family physical and sexual abuse …[and] parents …[with] substance abuse problems." As well, a study of Toronto street youth in substance abuse treatment refers to antecedent sexual abuse as a characteristic of survey respondents (Smart and Ogborne 1994:739). In a more recent study, Whitbeck, Hoyt, and Ackley's (1997:526) comment that "the family portraits that emerge …involve troubled family relationships often characterized by sexual exploitation, mutual aggression, and violence" is confirming of other findings.

2.1 Background and Gender

In that street-involved youth are vulnerable to victimization through prostitution, and that it is generally accepted that the majority of those engaged in prostitution are females, it is interesting that so few studies reviewed have a gender analysis of street youth. Although Caputo, Weiler, and Kelly comment that 25% of Ottawa youth (1994:30) reported physical or sexual abuse and 18.3% of Saskatoon youth (1994:30) reported being "abused in some way" as a reason for leaving home, unfortunately no further analysis by type of abuse or by gender is provided. In a study of child prostitutes in Vancouver, Webber (1991:98) notes that 80% of the girls and 17% of the boys had been sexually abused at home. But child prostitutes are further along the trajectory of vulnerability and exploitation than are the street youth that form the subject of this review. A number of American studies (e.g., Rotheram-Borus, Mahler, et al. 1996; Terrell 1997; Whitbeck and Simons 1990) indicate that adolescent females living on the street are considerably more likely to have experienced sexual abuse at home. But this gender breakdown of findings remains the exception rather than the rule.

2.2 Background and Sexual Orientation

Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth report homophobic reactions and homophobic victimization and violence at home and in school (Hunter 1990:299; Kruks 1991:516; Sullivan 1996:59). Sullivan, in his San Francisco study (1996:59), observes "…many gay and bisexual youths become 'throw-away' children, ejected from their homes and prematurely left to their own devices."

2.3 Background and Aboriginal Ancestry

The findings on the relationships between Aboriginal street youth and their families point to the importance of considering ethnic or cultural traditions in the experience of – and response to – street-involved youth. For example, a study of Aboriginal young people on the streets in Saskatoon shows that there is not a strict boundary between home and the street. The youth may indeed leave home, but do not appear to "run away from home" in the usual sense of this term. In fact, the youth "…remain 'connected' with family…[and] intermittently connected to institutions such as schools" (Caputo, Weiler, and Kelly 1994a:10). Although family conflict and abusive backgrounds are mentioned (p.30) as reasons for leaving home, the Saskatoon study does not include specific information on types of abuse experienced at home by Aboriginal youth; recent anecdotal and media reports on widespread sexual abuse among Aboriginal families, often as a result of residential school experiences, suggest that a connection between this phenomenon and Aboriginal family background might be explored. The reasons why Aboriginal street youth in Saskatoon do remain connected with family and home, while non-Aboriginal youth who have been sexually abused do not, is not addressed anywhere in the literature.

In reference to service use, there is consistent documentation of a lack of culturally sensitive services and resources for Aboriginal youth involved in street life (e.g., Caputo, Weiler and Kelly 1994a:11). Research that takes into account cultural differences in relationships with families would be informative for the development of services that would be more culturally appropriate and hence, it is assumed, more effective.

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