In Atlanta, runaway teens live in the shadows

For two years, Dorothy Adkins has scraped out a life on the streets of Atlanta.

The 18-year-old dreams of becoming a policewoman or a poet. Right now, she is looking through a window at her dismal past.

She and her boyfriend, DeMorieo King, are outside an abandoned school in Mechanicsville, off I-20. They wintered here two years ago, right after Adkins ran away from her Griffin home.

“This is where we lived,” she said. “You see, you can still see our stuff. Those are my shoes on the window sill.”

Fulton County juvenile court officials say runaway kids on the streets in Atlanta are a major problem, with parents or guardians filing 351 reports last year. That number doesn’t capture kids from other counties who come to Atlanta or kids whose parents don’t bother to report them missing.

“There are probably plenty of kids who aren’t where they are supposed to be, but the legal guardian hasn’t filed anything,” said Chris Yokom, who handles intake at the juvenile court. “They let them go, and that is a shame.”

While many eventually return home, most are drawn into prostitution within a few days of ending up on the street, said Melba Robinson, who oversees the juvenile court’s program dealing with child prostitution.

“The exploiters prey on young ladies who are runaways,” she said. “They groom them and tell them they don’t want to go home and that they’ll be their older boyfriend and the next thing you know, they are being exploited.”

Some runaways are truculent teens rebelling at their parents’ rules, said Constance West, who heads the mental health program at juvenile court. Others are fleeing sexual or physical abuse, and some are girls lured away from home by pimps, she said.

“I would say a pretty significant number end up on the street,” she said. “Statistics say that within 48 hours, kids who run away from home are lured into prostitution. Boys tend to end up more in burglary, but we are starting to see more boys trading sex with men.”

Adkins was raised in foster care. She had a turbulent relationship with her adoptive mother — who had once been her foster mother. “She didn’t trust me,” Adkins said. “She pushed me out.”

Her adoptive mother, Karshema Foster, tells a different story. She said she reported Adkins missing to Spalding County juvenile authorities and state social workers but got little help when Adkins ran off with King, who was 19 at the time.

Foster once retrieved Adkins when the girl was hospitalized with bronchitis, but King came back to Griffin, and they returned to Atlanta.

“Dorothy was never pushed out. She made the decision that she wanted to be with DeMorieo,” Foster said.

Dale Alton, a child advocate who assists runaways, said the kids live in a gray legal world. Shelters aren’t supposed to assist anyone under 18 who isn’t with a parent or guardian. Police pick up truants only if they’re under 16 and only during the morning hours.

The Atlanta Police Department’s Special Victims Unit investigated 1,080 runaway cases, which are status, not criminal cases, between January 2008 and last December. They closed 967 of the cases, with many of the kids returning home, said APD spokesman Officer Otis Redmond. The department didn’t track how many runaways were arrested for a crime.

Kids who stay on the street have few legitimate allies to turn to for assistance, said Alton, co-executive director of the Atlanta chapter of Stand Up for Kids, a nonprofit volunteer group that helps runaways and other homeless youth.

On Saturdays, Alton’s group roams downtown Atlanta with survival packets of hygiene supplies, food, socks and underwear, which they hand out to kids they determine are living on the streets. They also invite them to come to an outreach center run by Stand Up on Monday and Wednesday nights in a building on Walton Street in the Fairlie-Poplar district. About 25 kids usually show up.

There kids can do their laundry, get a shower and see a nurse. They also enjoy camaraderie over a meal. They leave with survival packs, additional clothing, MARTA tokens and friendly advice about getting their lives back on track. The group gave out 1,500 packets last year and had 1,400 contacts with kids, Alton said.

On a recent night, some kids played catch. Others played cards. Some took care of kids of their own. When the center closes, teens file out into the street. A girl pulls her coat tight, then reaches down to tuck a warm wrap around her baby.

“Sometimes, it is like a kindergarten in here,” said Leyla Compani, a Stand Up volunteer. “Their family life is so bad that they think life on the streets is a better option, and then they get there and find it is bad too.”

Some of the teens’ families are living in shelters, which are sometimes reluctant to take teenage boys because of perceived risks. Alton describes a mother who got beds for herself and her daughters but had to send her son out to camp.

“He would stay up all night,” Alton said. “And he would sleep on a MARTA train all day.”

Adkins credits Stand Up with providing her and King an anchor when they were trying to get by on the street. They survived on a network of soup kitchens, most run by churches, when they lived in the abandoned school for about six months in 2008.

Then they stayed with an Alpharetta family whose daughter they met at a soup kitchen.

Roberto Llatin, 47, said his family tried to help Adkins and King for about six months last year. The Llatins took them into their home and tried to steer them toward getting jobs and General Equivalency Diplomas. “It was coming into the cold season, and at the time, they were staying in an abandoned school. We kept them in separate rooms and did what we could to guide them,” said Llatin.

In the end, Llatin found the experience frustrating and disappointing. King made little effort to get his GED, and Adkins lost a job at Sears that Llatin helped her secure.

“They were highly unmotivated,” Llatin said. “As they move on in their lives, how many other opportunities are they going to get to leverage? I would hate to think that over the next 20 years, they are going to end up living in the streets, because that would be a tragedy.”

Adkins still speaks warmly of the Llatins, who asked the pair to leave after she got the job at Sears. The pair then moved into a $125-a-week room off Hollywood Boulevard in west Atlanta. When she lost her job, they moved into a storage unit. Since November, they’ve been staying with a friend’s family.

Adkins now works at a Checkers restaurant. She is taking GED classes in the morning at Covenant House before work. King, who recently found work as a security guard, knows he has to get serious about getting the GED if he’s going to achieve his goal of getting a commercial driver’s license.

“They struggle with what I think anyone coming from their backgrounds would struggle with,” Llatin said. “Maybe some day they will figure it out and move on with their lives. I just hope they aren’t running out of runway. I hope they don’t crash.”

In Other News