Statistics indicate that teenagers who live away from their parents without any adult supervision are high-risk to become high school drop-outs. Joel Milgram, a University of Cincinnati professor of education has found that a small number of teenagers and parents choose to live apart yet maintain themselves in high school. The teenagers fell into three categories, those who left on their own, those who were kicked out, and those who agreed to live alone with their parent's consent.
Milgram's research is the focus of a chapter in a forthcoming book. "One of the redeeming qualities for all of the kids in this research was that they all were determined to finish high school. Ironically, though most of them had negative feelings about their parents, they admitted to learning the value of education from their parents," he said.
According to Milgram, a developmental child psychologist who has done extensive research into the cognitive, social, and emotional development of children, there are children of various socio-economic backgrounds who have graduated from high school and improved their situations on their own, without adult supervision. Most of the adolescents lived in relative poverty, with the exception of those subsidized by their parents, and represent a small percentage of kids who were relatively successful.
This kind of situation, of a teen just striking out without formal court involvement, is one that gets a lot of attention in American popular fiction (e.g. one of the lead characters in the early 2000s television show "Roswell" who moves out from the home of a drunk and abusive foster father and a character in the ABC Family television series, "The Lying Game" that commenced in 2011 (the Sara Shepard book upon which the television series is based is quite different)), and even more in manga and anime where it is a common trope and almost a cliche, for example, in the case of the heroine in the hit series "Fruits Basket" by Natsuki Takaya (1999-2006). In a variant on the theme, sometimes a teen lives with another family with no formal arrangement in place, for example, as in the Colorado classic "Plainsong" by Kent Haruf (1999). The trope isn't a new one, for example, it was at the center of "The Boxcar Children" series of Gertrude Chandler Warner that debuted in 1924, and describes the life of the title character in Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (1884).
Part of the popularity of these situations is the simple fictional fact that it is easier to write a plausible tale of youthful adventure without parents on hand to get in the way. It provides a way to explore univeral teen yearnings for autonomy.
It also has a certain personal familiarity for me, as I spent my junior year in high school as an exchange student, living (as intended) with a series of host families, but also living more autonomously and independently than most American young adults for that year. As a lawyer I have dealt with this situations a small number of times first hand, representing someone involved in the arrangement or its aftermath each time. For example, in one case I handled, I represented a non-custodial parent of a child who lived alone with parental consent to avoid being uprooted by a move to a new town that would disrupt a stable high school situation for the child's senior year.
Milgram's study calls these teens "unemancipated teenagers", but in Colorado law, which just as in its recognition of common law marriage, and common law name changes, believes in the notion that actions speak louder than words, "emancipation" is a factual reality that exists or does not, with legal consequences, rather than a set of privileges and responsibilities which one receives from a court. In Colorado, rather than going to a court asking for permission to be emancipated, a teen is emancipated by virtue of the fact of living on their own and running their own lives without parental involvement and generally, a court merely acknowledges and treats the situation.*
Because it doesn't fit neatly into a box and is in a gray area between legality and illegality (even the law is sometimes contradictory on the legal status of these teens and it differs from state to state), there aren't good Census records on how often this happens and there isn't much good scholarship on how these teens manage.
In the case of foster children, our current system dumps them into this status and reality, whether they like it or not, when they turn eighteen. Yet, while it would have seemed borderline deviant for foster kids to live an empancipated life a couple of years earlier, at eighteen, emancipation is suddenly imposed on them, in many cases leading to a rocky start to adult life.
But, there are teens who make the leap and live on their own, and those kids sometimes do manage to get by, and sometimes even thrive. Most of these kids find a cheap place to live, get part-time work, stay in school and keep their grades up. The lives that they make for themselves can be better than the situations they are leaving. Milgram's report on twenty-two kids in this situation in three cities largely parallels my own experience providing legal counsel to people who find themselves with a connection to these situations.
The kids often live in the shadows, hiding these situations from school authorities, who can put them in an unwelcome foster care situation or return them to a parental household they don't want, if they can't explain why they have no one to sign a parental permission slip or fill out school registration forms for the year. Large governmental bureaucracies do not mix comfortably with the actual legal rules for which actions are enough to give rise to a change in status without formal paperwork.
More teens in high school who have family or foster home situations that aren't working well might do well in this alternative with the appropriate economic support, greater legitimacy with school and social service officials, and a mentor whom they could turn to without risking their autonomy. While one likes to hope that parents or legal guardians or foster parents are doing something of value for their teens, sometimes the reality is that they are just proving to be a hinderance or are actively worsening the situation of the teens in their care.
* For child support purposes, a child is automatically emancipated at age nineteen, when a child marries, when a child enters into active military duty, unless the child is "otherwise emancipated" (i.e. de facto self-sufficient and autonomous), with additional exceptions related to written stipulations between the parties, mental or physical disabilities, or completion of high school. See Section 14-10-115, Colorado Revised Statutes. Tax laws and a variety of other laws have different, not always consistent definitions. For example, Colorado currently has a law stating that it will not recognize the common law marriage of a person under the age of eighteen, even if it is recognized in another state, only licensed marriages, which often required parental consent or court approval are recognized by Colorado in the case of minors.