Homeless and runaway children, although not specifically mentioned in early vagrancy laws, have existed since the early settlement of the United States. Throughout the country's history, the conditions of larger society, such as a frequently depressed industrial economy that struggled with overproduction and labor surpluses, resulted in family upheaval. Sara A. Brown (1922) lists reasons children ran away from home during the early twentieth century: death of parents, abusive home life, broken homes, feeblemindedness, DELINQUENCY, and poverty. The major difference between runaway children and homeless children was that runaways chose to leave their home for the reasons above while homeless children were victims of social and economic factors that left them without shelter for varying lengths of time.
As Gregg Barak has shown, treatment of homeless and runaway children was strongly influenced by the ideology of social Darwinism, particularly the EUGENICS movement. The eugenics movement was based on the belief that selective breeding and breeding control would rid society of the inferior genetic material that was responsible for crime, mental illness, and retardation. Sterilization laws were an important tool of the eugenics movement. If homeless or runaway children were determined to be feeble-minded, it was not uncommon for them to be institutionalized and sterilized.
The first state to pass sterilization laws was Indiana, in 1907. By 1944, thirty states had passed sterilization laws and forty thousand men, women, and children had been sterilized. Between 1945 and 1963, another twenty-two thousand people were sterilized. California sterilized the largest number at twenty thousand, followed by Virginia, with eight thousand. Virginia's sterilization program did not officially end until 1979. Homeless and runaway children and adolescents were the most likely to be sterilized.
Homeless and runaway children have been the victims of changing societal attitudes...
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