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RUNAWAYS OF 16 AND 17 CAUSE CONCERN

After years of threatening to run away, Pamela Peterman's daughter finally stormed out the door last November. She said it was for good. She had just turned 16.

In desperation, Mrs. Peterman, a City of Tonawanda mother of three, telephoned the police.

But Mrs. Peterman knew the call for help was futile. Her daughter often reminded her of that fact:

Once a teen-ager turns 16 in New York, he or she can legally leave home without parental consent.

"They are free agents," said Nathan Hare, Erie County's Commissioner of Youth.

That could end under a bill languishing in the Assembly. But a bitter battle has developed, pitting some parents' groups against the complexities of the legislative agenda, all of which promises to continue the status quo. Just what is the status quo?

Parents remain financially responsible for their children until they are 18. But no one -- not parents, police, school officials or the courts -- can compel a 16- or 17-year-old to
stay home or even go to school.

In fact, horror stories abound about parents who suddenly face huge legal bills when their 16- and 17-year-olds leave home and end up in trouble -- or parents who pay $20,000 or $30,000 to get their kids into drug rehab clinics even though they won't come home.

"At 16, you can't vote. You can't smoke. You can't drink alcohol," said Mrs. Peterman, who is also a Tonawanda City School Board member and part of a grass-roots movement for the bill.

"But you are free to leave home, and there's nothing parents can do about it," said Mrs. Peterman, who has kept her daughter's Christmas presents wrapped for the day when she returns. "It's heartbreaking."

The problem is larger than many realize, authorities say. In Buffalo alone, police take an average of three calls a day from parents reporting runaways, most of them between ages 13 and 16.

Last year, Amherst handled 150 cases involving runaways.

In West Seneca, Lt. Allen F. Scioli of the Police Department's Juvenile Bureau says he gets calls every week from panicked parents with 16- and 17-year-olds who have taken off.

"They request us to get them back. We have to tell them we can't do that. It destroys them," Scioli said. "It's an actual disgrace."

He says most of the 16- and 17-year-olds who leave are girls who move in with older males, over their parents' protests.

"They end up pregnant and on welfare," he said.

Just keeping teens between 16 and 17 at home could make all the difference, the backers of the legislation say.

"Between 16 and 18, kids rapidly mature," said Sally Yageric of the Erie County Council for the Prevention of Alcohol and Substance Abuse.

They are less impulsive, more realistic. The chances are much better they will make rational decisions about the future, she said.

"A 16-year-old will say, 'I can move out and get a job that pays $50 a week. Wow!," said Ms. Yageric. "An 18-year-old will say, 'If I finish school, I can get a better job, or go to college.' Their minds are more developed."

Some critics of the bill argue that it could force kids to return to dysfunctional families. They say not all families of runaways are like the Petermans, who are trying hard to help their daughter -- now living with a relative -- and want nothing more than to see her home again.

"Some may be going back to environments where there are adults using alcohol or drugs," said Hare, the county's youth commissioner. They may not particularly care whether their youngster is back, he said.

That argument is not the major stumbling block for the Assembly bill, though. In fact, both sides agree that, in general, most 16- and 17-year-olds are better off home. The biggest problem the bill faces is in Albany, where it is caught in the middle of a fight over funding for more detention holding centers and related programs and costs.

Last week, the Senate version of the bill, proposed by Sen. Mary Lou Rath, R-Williamsville, passed 58-0. It was the fourth consecutive year the Senate has passed such a bill.

"The bottom line is if you can keep a young person at home, possibly keep them out of the criminal justice system, you should," Sen. Rath said. "This would be a step in the right direction."

The Assembly version, meanwhile, has remained in the Committee on Children and Families, stalled by Democrats mostly because it doesn't include extra money for the extra cases.

Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, who is a committee member, complains the Assembly version would swamp the juvenile justice system because raising the PINS age would bring in huge numbers of other troubled 16- and 17-year-olds -- not just the runaways supporters want home.

"It doesn't do any good to pass a bill without a funding source," Hoyt said.

According to Hare's office, the legislation would bring another 2,500 juveniles into Family Court. Of those, between 900 and 1,000 would likely end up in East Ferry Detention Center or other forms of detention custody. Caseloads for juvenile probation officers also would skyrocket.

The legislation's critics contend Erie County alone would need $6 million to handle the extra load of 16- and 17-year-olds. For instance, Hare says the county would need to expand the East Ferry Detention Center so younger juveniles could be segregated from the older teens. Aside from that, more probation officers and probation/detention programs would be needed, he said.

The bill's supporters aren't impressed with that argument. They suspect the figures are inflated to squeeze more money out of Albany. Instead of sitting on the bill because it doesn't include funding, Hoyt and his colleagues should either scrape some money together or pass the Assembly bill without funding, they argue.

"What if we had never addressed domestic violence because it costs money?" Mrs. Peterman said. "They should be doing what's right for families and they're not."

Hoyt, under fire by parents and other supporters of the bill, is softening his opposition somewhat. He says he is "not averse" this session to pushing for an amendment to the bill addressing his financial concerns, or possibly a new bill.

"I'm working my tail off," he said.

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