I have a character with a little back-story I'd like to dribble in here and there as we go.

I have something sort of specific in mind, and it makes sense for the character, but it doesn't seem like something that would really happen in the world, and I'd like to find a way to make it make sense.

The back-story is basically this;

My protagonist is currently around age 20 and it's the early 90s. She has a 5 year-old son. She and her son live in a dilapidated house in the sticks. The house is the same one she lived in with her parents, who died while she was pregnant with her son.

I can change the ages a little, but don't want to very much. If anything, I'd like the child to be a bit older which makes her pregnant younger. So my timeline requires that her pregnancy was around age 14 in the mid 80s. So I have a 14 year-old who lives in a house by herself for 5 years or so while raising a baby. No family. No guardian present. Perhaps some help from social services or something. Mostly her working, using the bit of money that was left to her, raising the baby and holding it together as best she can.

This seems pretty unlikely (though I could be wrong), and I'm not sure how to make it happen.

I assume it will brush up against laws and procedures from social services, and laws on guardianship, employment, education (earliest age you can legally drop out, get a GED, etc.), emancipation, probate, etc. during the 80s. I believe most of these laws vary from state to state (perhaps county to county), and there's a little flexibility on where they live. Ideally in the south; Florida, Alabama, around that area.

I'm a bit new to research in general and not quite sure where to start. I'd like to be a little efficient - I can't read every law-book from every county the 80s on social services and child welfare and how much leeway a judge has in deciding what happens to someone in this situation. I'm having a little trouble deciding which thread to pull first.

When you have something like this, how do you start?


2 Answers 2


Not to counter what has already been said by others, but the is a great difference between the letter of the law and the reality of its practice. A 14-yo can live alone in the United States. All it takes is a negligent guardian who enjoys collecting benefit checks, but doesn't follow through with any of their custodial duties to the child. Furthermore, a child might acquire considerable cash assets during the passing of their parents in the form of un-banked "money-in-the-mattress" funds and the benevolence of family friends which would keep them off of the civil radar completely. The sad truth is that our social services departments are so overworked in some regions of the country that in the absence of a complaint or an application for financial aid, a person could go unnoticed by them for a long time.

Additionally, if you change the official ownership of the backwoods home from "her parents" to "unknown", as in an abandoned property, she could be living there with the same cultural anonymity as a homeless person on the streets of any major city. All she would need is a source of ongoing income for food and basic supplies which she could earn by discretely doing chores for her neighbors.

Finally, with another minor change to your story, separating the parents death and the child's birth by a few years, you could give your characters some early teen years on the street, without the child but also without parental guidance. Those years could give her the street wisdom and hardening necessary to portray herself as older than she really is. A 14yo street urchin claiming to be 16 or 17 is much more likely to be believed than a pampered and sheltered child of the same age.

Your original question concerned research and that is a tricky subject when writing fiction. As story tellers, we are professional liars, telling tales of events which never occurred. The biggest question to be applied to any aspect of a telling is not about its factual truth. It is far more important that a story be believable than that it be true. So how do you research the lives of single adolescent parents? You could always find a charity which supports them and volunteer some time. Or you could climb into your creative side, shed the necessary years of confidence and experience, and imagine what it would be like to be one of them. Remember that most of the young women who live the life you are interested in, started with no preparation for what they were getting into. They were just like you were, back some time ago, before you were privileged to walk an easier path.

  • This is a great answer. You think like me (problem to solve) more than some that might just say "no way" and leave it at that. There is a lot of wiggle-room in the world to make things happen the way we need them to... the problem is just knowing enough about a thing to be sure you aren't saying something really stupid =o)
    – Eli
    Dec 24, 2014 at 23:11

In the Unites States it is implausible that a 14 year old legally lives on her own within society.

Here are some expert opinions for Georgia, but it is unlikely that the situation will be different in other states: http://www.avvo.com/legal-answers/can-a-mature-14-year-old-live-alone-with-parental--1275608.html (I searched for "14 year old living alone" in Google, without quotation marks.)

If you want a 14 year old to live alone, she would need to do so in secret, because as soon as some neighbor, teacher, or other responsible adult notices, they will call in the police or youth welfare office.

More generally, where I would start researching would depend on the area. I would always start with an internet search engine first. Often there is a Wikipedia article, some forum discussion, or news articles related to what I want to know. Often those point me to more in depth sources. This takes a few minutes.

The next step is news archives, scholarly databases (e.g. Google Scholar), and scholarly bibliographies. The next step, if this yields nothing, are introductory text books or expert handbooks of the relevant field. Since I sit and work in a university library, and since I am academically trained to do research, all this takes me no more than an hour or two, at most. I never put more time into it at this point.

If I still have nothing, I try to find someone who should know (a lawyer, a phyiscian, a programmer, a baker, etc., or, if those appear unapproachable, a student of law, a baker's apprentice, etc.). Often there are forums where people of a certain profession gather, and you can usually get help there, if you are polite and respectful and explain your purpose. Getting an answer in this way might take a few days (for people to visit their forum and reply to my question, or for me to contact an expert and them making time for me), but it is only time that passes and not time that I actively work on the problem, so I do other things in the meantime and don't lose that time.

Only, if I cannot find anything in this manner, only if the question is important enough for me, and only if I believe an answer exists at all, do I start to study the field on my own. Time for this last step can be indefinite.

  • Minor's can live alone legaly if granted emancipation by state: Emancipation of Minors in Georgia
    – CLockeWork
    Dec 23, 2014 at 11:44
  • @CLockeWork Did you even read the page you linked? It says: "Minors who are at least 16 years old and less than 18 years old may apply for emancipation in Juvenile Court. The minor must be a Georgia resident." So a 14 year old can not be granted emancipation in Georgia.
    – user5645
    Dec 23, 2014 at 11:46
  • 1
    Fair point, I admit that I didn't read the whole thing, I don't have time at the moment. Still, at least that means the OP can just up the age to 16 :)
    – CLockeWork
    Dec 23, 2014 at 11:55
  • Hopefully it's of use regardless
    – CLockeWork
    Dec 23, 2014 at 15:39

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