Oakland Tribune / Argus

RUNAWAYS: Beneath the sterile surface of the suburbs exists a network of homeless teens

Janice Jenket of Union City is the mother of a runaway. She and her husband hired private investigators to find their son, whom they say is a drug user. Photo: Anda Chu
Janice Jenket of Union City is the mother of a runaway. She and her husband hired private investigators to find their son, whom they say is a drug user. Photo: Anda Chu

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Parents Look For Their Lost Child

Looking back, Janice Jenket says it’s difficult to pinpoint when concern for her son turned into alarm. She thinks it’s when she realized he was using heavy drugs.

It hadn’t occurred to Janice and Bruce Jenket that their son might be snorting methamphetamines – until he started talking about the worms.

“One day, his eyes were just wild,” the Union City mother recalls. “He thought worms were coming out of the piercing in his chin.”

It was soon after that 16-year-old Mark Jenket disappeared. One year later, his parents are still looking for him.


Once a clean-cut Boy Scout, Mark Jenket changed during the year before he ran away, his mother says. He stopped doing well in math, pierced his ears and face six times and frequently changed the color of his hair. His habitual truancy and newly developed tendency to become easily agitated heightened her concern.

The kicker, though, was the crystal methamphetamine recipe she found in his backpack, she said.

Last spring, Mark was sent to drug rehabilitation at Kaiser Medical Center. Doctors determined he had a drug problem and sent him home. Soon after, on April 28, 2000, the James Logan High School senior told his mother he was going to stay after school to take a practice proficiency exam.

The family has not seen him since. His high school classmates have graduated. His 17th birthday has come and gone. “He hasn’t even called,” his mother says.

Like dozens of families in Fremont, Union City and Newark, the Jenkets have lost their son to the streets – and there is little they can do about it.

In California, being a runaway isn’t illegal, like it was 25 years ago. As a result, police departments can’t do much about the hundreds of runaway reports they receive annually.

Last year, most of Fremont’s 390, Union City’s 280 and Newark’s 129 runaways returned home. Some, however, band together in the area, sleeping in shacks, friends’ apartments, motels and, sometimes, on the street.

Often, runaways congregate in certain areas around town. Until recently, the place to meet was the Starbucks at the Fremont Hub. But in December 2000, Hub merchants vowed to clean house. Now, homeless teens seldom “kick it” there as they did before.

But they haven’t returned home. Instead, they’ve headed to other coffee shops, other motels, other shacks.

They party, often indulging in the street kid drug of choice – crystal meth, or crank. To get cash, they work odd jobs and “spange,” slang for soliciting “spare change.” Some say they generate as much as $150 a day.

One cash-generation endeavor they avoid, however, is ratting out a member of the “family.” It’s probably why the $5,000 reward the Jenkets were offering to anyone who could lead them to Mark spawned so few leads.

Now, the Jenkets are fighting time. When Mark turns 18 in June, he will be exempt from any mandatory rehabilitation programs. If his parents find him before his birthday, they can send him to a full session of rehabilitation from which he can’t leave until the program’s completion.

One fact keeps their hope alive: Mark supposedly is still in town, running with a network of local transients. Or so say two private investigators from New Mexico hired by Mark’s parents to find and return their son.

The Private Investigators

Private investigators Twila Stephenson (left) and Bob Christian have been searching for a Union City teenager since fall.
Private investigators Twila Stephenson (left) and Bob Christian have been searching for a Union City teenager since fall.

Investigators Bob Christian and Twila Stephenson pull their vehicle into the parking lot at Bay Billiards in Fremont, where Mark is said to have been seen. Christian shuts off the vehicle and pulls out the binoculars. The investigators can no longer go inside because management says they’ve stirred up too much trouble.

A woman walks by the car and laughs.

“Looking for your son?” she asks.

“We get that all the time,” Christian mutters, still holding the binoculars to his face.

This particular Wednesday night is like many nights for Stephenson and Christian. Tonight, they’re hitting some of the public hot spots for runaways in Fremont: Starbucks, the BART station, Motel 6, the Bay Street Coffee Company.

Some nights, they stake out houses, follow cars and slip kids money for clues. Once, a car they were following turned around and gave chase.

To an extent, these things pay off – or seem to. The investigators have found and interviewed Mark’s best friend – a fellow runaway and alleged drug dealer. They have talked to dozens of teens who say they know him or have seen him in town. But when it comes to finding Mark, the closest they have come is cornering a young man they mistook for him.

Christian and Stephenson are in the business of finding runaways and getting them treatment. Boyfriend and girlfriend, they have captured dozens of kids in the eight years they’ve been in business. Their business, Guiding Light Adolescent Services, specializes in “female transport,” according to the business card.

Females are easier to coax, subdue, handcuff and take on planes, they say. But the couple made an exception for Mark Jenket.

“I’m starting to feel like this kid’s mine,” Stephenson says from the back seat, looking through her binoculars.

The investigators – who have been in town searching for Mark since early October – get paid by the day and stay at a local motel.

Their presence unnerves local police officials.

“I have concerns about them,” says Fremont Police spokeswoman Julie Terry from the missing person’s department. “I wasn’t sure if it was OK for them to snatch him off the street, so I contacted the district attorney’s office, which discouraged them from doing so.”

Connie Van Putten, who was a Union City police captain when the investigators first took the case, puts it more strongly.

“The law doesn’t allow them to hold a kid against his will,” says Van Putten, who retired recently. “If they decide to forcibly take him somewhere, that’s a problem. Their licenses could be revoked.”

The investigators understand the complexities. Still, they plan to do what they were hired to do.

“When we see this boy, we’re going to grab him,” Stephenson says.

In New Mexico, and in other states where the investigators have worked, snatching, cuffing and transporting teens is relatively easy, they say.

But their job is much more difficult in California, a state that grants minors more personal freedom that the investigators are accustomed to.

Unlike in New Mexico, it is not illegal for a juvenile to be a runaway in California. And unlike Oregon, Utah or Washington, California harbors no lock-down rehab facilities.

As outsiders, Christian and Stephenson were unaware of California’s strict laws when the Jenkets solicited their services in September 2000.

They have since learned the rules.

To abide by them, they found a loophole: Mark’s parents contend he not only ran away but also stole parts of his father’s pistol. Jenket says she filed a complaint, which gives police reason to search for him more aggressively than most runaways.

Police concede it’s true that such a complaint allows them to intensify their efforts. Nevertheless, they still are wary.

Terry says she has warned the investigators that using handcuffs is a “no-no.”

In response, the investigators say they’ve modified their approach. Now they plan to corner – not handcuff – Mark.

“Then we’ll call the police, and wait,” Christian says.

While the notion of a “teen stake out” might be disconcerting for some, the Jenkets depend on such close attention.

In contrast, the police department offers limited help, Jenket says.

Police often give up on trying to take runaways to area shelters because nothing prevents teens from running away again, and teens know it, say officials at a county-run shelter in Castro Valley called the Malabar House.

The Police Quandary

Police take Tri-City runaways to the Malabar House. The phone number and exact location are kept confidential to provide runaways solace from their families.

The Malabar House, which offers kids food and lodging for up to 48 hours, is among the last county residential services for teen runaways in the state, says Patty Burgess, house manager for 19 years. Geared entirely for kids, the house prohibits the presence of parents.

Once, it was common for the house to accommodate 20 runaways from Fremont, Union City and Newark every month. But for the past two years, the average has dropped to 10. The numbers are less indicative of a decline in the problem, Burgess says, than they are of a legal gray area that renders parents of runaways almost helpless.

Running away is not illegal, so even when police find runaways they often run away again.

“We have kids the come 10, 15, 20 times a year,” says Aaron Yohannes, a counselor at the house.

Burgess speculates that the combination of factors – the running away is not illegal and that runaways who return home or to a place such as Malabar often just run away again – discourages police from searching for them.

For the last 25 years, no laws have prevented teens from fleeing the shelter.

The Laws

Van Putten remembers when it was illegal to be a runaway.

When she was a young Union City police officer, Van Putten said she chased runaways “through canyons and across fields.”

“Especially in the the ‘60s, when so many were running away to Haight/Ashbury to some commune,” she says. But in 1976, there was a national “personal freedom” movement that eventually affected juvenile delinquent laws in various states – including California.

Many felt that runaways shouldn’t be locked up with drug dealers, murderers and rapists, Burgess says.

“They were learning more about being a criminal in jail,” she says. “(There needed to be) a program that prevented kids from going into the juvenile system.”

Now, there are two categories of runaway juveniles: status offenders, who have simply run away, and delinquents, who have committed a crime and can therefore be incarcerated, Deputy District Attorney John Poppas says.

Parents accountable

While status offenders no longer can be locked up, parents can be held accountable for their children’s actions, Poppas says.

“If a kid commits graffiti, the parents could have to pay for the damage – even if they’re over 18,” he says.

Similarly, the parents of truant students are punished by the state, Terry says.

“The child isn’t punished, but the child could be fined, she says. “It’s ridiculous, especially when you’re talking about a 16- or 17-year-old.”

The fact that parents are responsible for the actions of their runaway kids creates a legal gray zone that leaves parents somewhat helpless, Terry says. For some parents, it actually is a relief when their runaway kids are arrested for committing a crime.

Karen, a Fremont woman who asked that her last name be withheld, has a teen-age daughter who lived on the streets for a year before returning home in January. On New Year’s Eve, Karen was on Tennyson Road in Hayward, posting fliers asking her daughter to return home, when she ran into her.

Her daughter returned home, but stole $350 and left again, Karen says. The Hayward police found and arrested her daughter in connection with the theft. They sent her to Juvenile Hall, where she was released last week.

“This is like a gift from God,” she says. “I felt for the first time finally somebody can do something about this.”

Janice Jenket empathizes. In addition to hiring investigators and pounding the pavement herself to find her son, she also wants to reach out to other parents dealing with similar situations.

“I think God chose us. Parents are ashamed. But parents need to know this can happen to anyone.”