Parents `are washing hands' of 16-year-olds

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The Independent Online
PARENTS feel that they can wash their hands of their children once they turn 16, challenging public policy assumptions that families will support teenage school-leavers.

A survey by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation into youth homelessness found that parents often see their children's 16th birthday as marking a watershed in their responsibilities.

Half of all parents thought it was reasonable to let a 16-year-old girl leave home rather than accept a boyfriend they objected to. And almost all agreed that a 16-year-old boy who clashed with his mother's new partner should be the one to leave home rather than the partner.

In-depth interviews with families living on local authority estates in Staffordshire, and young people who had become homeless found that there were often important differences in the background reasons for conflict.

In the past 20 years there has been a marked rise in the incidence of youth homelessness. Whereas in 1981 the typical single homeless person was still a male in his forties or older, by 1991 the Department of the Environment study found the majority of the single homeless were young people aged 25 and under.

Although parents are nearly always willing in principle to provide a home for older teenagers, many insist that it depends on acceptable behaviour and other conditions such as board and help with chores. Where conflict arose they thought it was acceptable for the children to leave home.

Young people who had grown up with the same parents were most likely to have become homeless because of arguments over their behaviour. Nine out of ten young women said friction was caused by disputes over boyfriends; while parents described various failed attempts to control their daughters. Young men had to leave home after being caught stealing from their parents, or physical confrontation with their fathers.

But young people whose families had been disrupted by parents separating were most likely to have become homeless because they could not get on with the new partner, or the parent wanted to "make a new life" for themselves.

Of the 56 young homeless people who were interviewed, two in five said they had been physically or verbally abused, including a majority of those who came from broken homes. Just under one-third reported mental health problems and nearly one in six had attempted suicide.

"These findings have an important implications for the Government's `New Deal' where young people over 16 will be required to take places in education, training or employment," said Joan Smith, of the Housing and Community Research Unit at Staffordshire University. "There is a clear disparity between policy assumptions that families will house older children and the way in which many parents take a more qualified view of their responsibilities.

"Better counselling and support services could help to prevent the kind of conflict that leads to homelessness among young people and ensure that those who do leave home receive better help."

t The Family Background of Young Homeless People, is published by the Family Policy Studies Centre, 231 Baker Street, London NW1 6XE; price pounds 9.95 (plus pounds 1.50 p&p).