States Have Mixed Record Serving Homeless Youth

Some have expanded access to social services for homeless minors, but many still cycle them through the legal system.
by | September 6, 2012 AT 7:00 PM

With an estimated 1.6 million homeless minors on the streets, states have a decidedly mixed record on how they’re treated under the law, according to a new state-by-state review of laws affecting unaccompanied youth from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

On the one hand, states have made great strides in allowing homeless youth to make their own decisions about health care and other social services, according to the group, which advocates on behalf of disadvantaged minors. On the other hand, however, many states still consider homeless youth to be primarily a law enforcement problem, with the de facto response being to cycle them through the legal system.

On the positive side, the group observed 22 states allow homeless youth to receive social services without court involvement; 34 states allow those minors to apply for health insurance without parental consent; 28 allow such youth to consent to their own mental health treatment; and 47 waive requirements that minors live with a parent or legal guardian to receive federal benefits, such as food stamps.

Those allowances are important, the Center wrote, considering the circumstances under which many homeless youth leave their homes. According to the report, 43 percent of homeless minors say they were beaten by a caregiver, and 25 percent said they had been solicited for sex by a caregiver.

Some states have taken steps to allow unaccompanied minors to apply for Medicaid or the related Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) without their families. Thirteen states, including California, Illinois, Massachusetts and Ohio, have established “presumptive eligibility” systems, which allows shelters or foster homes that house homeless youth to enroll their residents in Medicaid or CHIP. The Center singled out Hawaii’s Medicaid program as a model for others. The state places no restrictions for parentless youth to apply for public health coverage and imposes no co-payments or other limits for a wide range of services, including doctor visits and outpatient mental health.

But work on the law enforcement side remains to be done, the group concluded: 46 states allow homeless youth to be taken into police custody; 16 states make it a crime to harbor a runaway youth in one’s home without consideration for the reason the person ran away; and eight states still have “judgmental” terms—such as unruly, vagrant or delinquent—in their statutes when referring to homeless youth.

The Center noted that five states (Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Nevada and South Carolina) permit runaway youth to be placed in secure detention facilities, such as local jails. Almost every state allows police to take a runaway minor into custody without the person’s permission or a court order, and 36 allow law enforcement to return a runaway to their home or placed in a foster home without the individual’s consent.

There are notable exceptions, however, according to the report. Connecticut, for example, dictates that runaways ages 16 and 17 can be taken to a public or private facility, whether a foster home or a homeless shelter, only with the youth’s permission. Under the eyes of state law, Connecticut’s runaways are viewed with a distinct legal status, rather than considered criminals, a model that the Center says other states should emulate. Likewise, Illinois and Oregon have said that runaway youth can only be taken home or to a shelter with their consent.

If minors become homeless, they are often escaping an undesirable home life, the report observed, and that raises the question of emancipation. According to the Center, 33 states have set up a process for youths to be emancipated; 23 have established 16 as the earliest age for emancipation, while five others do not have a minimum age. Some require parental consent, although most include a waiver from that provision. Other common requirements include being financially independent and living separately from one’s parents or guardians.

Indiana was highlighted as a state with an effective emancipation statute. Under that state’s law, there is no minimum age for emancipation and no parental consent is required. However, state courts are required to ensure that youth seeking emancipation understand the consequences of their decision (for example, they will be treated as an adult under the criminal justice system). Once emancipated, Indiana youth are permitted to marry, own property and consent to health care.

For the Center’s complete survey of state laws for homeless youth and recommendations on how they could be improved, read the full report below.