Based on years of work with runaway and homeless youth and the best emerging evidence about what they need to succeed, the Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) believes the most crucial outcomes for runaway and homeless youth include: well-being, permanent connections, safety and self-sufficiency.
In a new issue of The Exchange, we focus on ways to improve safety for runaway and homeless youth. First, we look at runaway prevention practices, meant to keep youth off the street and in their homes whenever possible. Next, we address the particular safety needs of sexually trafficked youth while they are getting help from social service providers. And last, we look at best practices for keeping youth safe after they leave a runaway and homeless youth program.
Nicole West was teaching her weekly “Responsive Attentive Peers” life skills class at a school for at-risk students in Sherman, TX, and one student had all the warning signs of running away. She was 17, toying with joining a gang, and it seemed unlikely she'd ever be able to return to traditional school. She fought with her mother and resisted everything West tried to teach her about ignoring peer pressure and communicating with her family in a healthy way.
“She was at that point where she just didn’t care about anything,” says West, a prevention specialist at North Texas Youth Connection. “But she kept coming. And I could tell she was starting to pick up on the lessons. Towards the end she told me that she was applying the things we were talking about. Soon she came in and said ‘I got a job.’”
Under West’s gentle guidance, the young woman entered a new phase: a year later, the young woman has gone back to traditional public school and avoided joining the gang. Perhaps most important, she’s getting along much better with her mother.
Every youth worker knows the importance of helping runaway and homeless teens, but the primary line of defense is preventing young people from running away in the first place. By helping at-risk young people improve their coping and communication skills—and by extension, their home lives—and recognize the risks of street life, youth workers can prevent them from becoming statistics.
This undertaking lies at the heart of the Family and Youth Services Bureau’s mission. “In the continuum of services that Family and Youth Services Bureau grantees offer to runaway and homeless youth and their families, prevention is essential,” says Curtis O. Porter, director of FYSB’s runaway and homeless youth programs. “Successful runaway prevention efforts help support youth and strengthen families so that young people can stay safe at home and off the streets.”
Communication Spurs Change
Norma Thomas coordinates runaway and homeless youth programs for The Children’s Cabinet, a FYSB grantee in Reno, NV. She says that getting families to open up to each other is essential to runaway prevention.
“Communicating that there’s a problem is the first step in changing it,” she says, “and developing an open line of communication within families can prevent most episodes of running away.”
Communication can be a challenge in families headed by a single parent or those in which parents work long hours to make ends meet. When West asks young people to draw a picture of their family at home after dinner time, she says “There might be one or two kids out of 25 who draw everyone together in the living room, but most draw each person in the house in different rooms,” she says.
West uses the drawings as a visual aid to encourage youth to tell their parents what they need from them. “We tell [youth], ‘Parents can’t read minds. Spend time with your family and let them know what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling,’” she says.
In addition to her classroom lessons, West offers counseling sessions to youth and families meant to foster more open communication. In particular, she teaches families the importance of body language and tone of voice, which can often communicate more than words do.
Anger-management lessons can also help youth to express themselves better to parents without instigating a fight. West asks youth to calm down, count to ten, and talk respectfully when they feel victimized or unheard.
“We talk about how every family is unique, how each person has a different role to play and how we all need to take some responsibility in the family,” she adds. By giving youth a sense that their actions matter to the general well-being of the family, West challenges them to improve the family dynamic rather than run away from it.
In cases where youth claim to be experiencing abuse or neglect at home, however, West steps in to connect them to the many local services that can keep them from ending up on the street.
Thomas says that many young people only see what they’re running away from, not where they’re going.
“A lot of kids have glamorized notions of what it would be like to leave home and live on their own,” she says. “We try to start a dialogue about what running away really means day-to-day.”
In group discussion sessions, she asks young people what they think they’d need to take with them if they left home today, how it would feel not having a change of clothes or not knowing where they were going to sleep that night.
“We often hear, ‘I’d rather be living with my boyfriend or girlfriend on the street,’” says Nicole West. “Many of these youth have serious problems at home, but there are also a lot of kids who just don’t like the chores, don’t like their parents’ rules. They think, ‘I’ll have nobody to tell me what to do, it’ll be so easy.’ We try and teach those kids it’s not like they think it will be.”
West uses statistics about homelessness in and around Sherman to convey the difficulties of living on the street. She asks youth how many shelters they think are available in surrounding areas. And she brings in people who work with homeless youth to share stories of their clients’ lives.
Of course, the point of runaway prevention efforts is not to make running away seem like an even bleaker prospect than staying at home. The goal is to help young people and families develop more nurturing, healthy relationships—and in turn, to prevent today’s troubled youth from turning into tomorrow’s street outreach client.
Nicole West, prevention specialist for the North Texas Youth Connection, and Norma Thomas, runaway and homeless youth services coordinator for The Children’s Cabinet, both rely on the Let’s Talk Runaway Prevention Curriculum, an interactive program intended to build life skills, educate youth about alternatives to running away, and encourage youth to seek help when they need it.
The Let’s Talk curriculum was developed by the National Runaway Switchboard, a Family and Youth Services Bureau grantee, and was recently deemed an evidence-based intervention. Researchers tested the curriculum in 10 communities in eight states. They found that Let’s Talk improved young people’s ability to deal with challenging life situations and overcome obstacles in a healthy way.
West, who has taught the curriculum for five years, says that youth learn different skills in each of the curriculum’s 14 modules—everything from self-advocacy to anger management and respectful body language. “They learn to cope with different issues that come up so that they can manage stressors in their lives and choose not to run away from them,” she says.
By helping youth feel respected and valued at home, the Let’s Talk curriculum addresses the issues that often precede running away.
The girls sit on the floor and on the sofa. They listen and share. Sometimes, it’s hard to talk. But in this space, no one is judged.
This is Rachel’s Group. Once a week, Rachel Lloyd meets with members of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, the New York organization she founded to help young women leave “the Life,” as sex trafficking is called by those involved with it.
When they’re in Rachel’s Group, the girls feel safe—empowered, listened to, sheltered from the brutality of their lives and the stigma that the outside world places on them. Like the girls she mentors, Lloyd was trafficked for sex as a young woman. She knows firsthand the manipulation, degradation and rape the girls face. She knows the danger inherent in trying to leave the Life, and the strength it takes for girls to break the exploitative bonds that tie them to their pimps. She knows the girls won’t come here for help if they feel endangered.
“The girls say, ‘We like being here because it’s safe and because it’s a community,’” says Julie Laurence, chief program officer at GEMS.
Survivor-led programs like GEMS have emerged as models for other youth-serving organizations that come into contact with trafficked youth, but aren’t sure how to ensure their physical and emotional safety. Experts say that with some precautions and training, runaway and homeless youth programs, with their dual focus on understanding and treating young people’s trauma and on empowering youth to reach their full potential, can create their own version of Rachel’s Group: a safe, nonjudgmental environment where formerly trafficked youth feel comfortable getting help.
“It’s about having rapport and establishing a context of safety and non-exploitation,” says Mary Schmidbauer, director of Second Chance, a Toledo, OH, program that works with trafficked women and girls.
Keeping Danger at Bay
Physical safety is paramount for trafficked youth, who have an extra level of safety concerns, above and beyond those of other runaway and homeless youth, Laurence says.
“Pimps use violence and threats of harming their families if young people try to escape,” she says. And often traffickers know each other, so young people might fear that their attempts to leave the Life might reach the wrong ears.
Runaway and homeless youth programs also have to be vigilant to ensure that pimps don’t try to recruit vulnerable young people from emergency shelters, and that trafficked youth don’t attempt to recruit others while they are in a program.
To address those safety concerns, Schmidbauer says programs that serve trafficked youth shouldn't open up near prostitution zones. Second Chance is tucked away on a church campus, but it’s in the center of town and on a bus line. Girls can easily get there without being observed or followed by pimps.
At GEMS, a security camera monitors the locked outside doors, and all visitors have to be buzzed in.
If trafficking does occur near a youth shelter or program, or if pimps attempt to harass or recruit youth entering or leaving the facilities, the best remedy is to work closely with law enforcement, says Jake Hardie, special agent with the FBI and coordinator of the Northwest Ohio Violent Crimes Against Children Task Force.
“What helps is if the staff at these shelters relay information to law enforcement that helps us build a baseline of what’s going on with trafficking in the area,” he says. “Just by giving us that type of information, that helps us deal with the problem.”
Schmidbauer and her staff keep an eye out for youth who seem interested in recruiting their peers. Often these girls are overconfident and act over-sexualized, Schmidbauer says, unlike many typical victims, who often are unassertive and unassuming and won’t make eye contact. Schmidbauer assigns a staff member to shadow the suspected recruiter and be in the room with her at all times (short of following her to the bathroom) as long as she is at Second Chance, to keep her from recruiting other youth.
Experts say ensuring safety for trafficked youth is not just about physical safety from exploiters and johns. It’s also about making youth who’ve been used and abused by adults feel safe, as the girls in Rachel’s group do, and making them feel that staff won’t harm or manipulate them.
“It’s important for these girls to see that there’s someone who’s there just to help them and doesn’t want anything in return,” says Jennifer Meyers, an FBI victim specialist in Cleveland.
For a youth-serving program to feel safe, staff need to have training, Laurence says, “so they know how to engage and ask questions and not have their own biases [about prostitution] come through,” Laurence says.
Laurence and Meyers emphasize that those who work with trafficked youth need to make no judgments. At the most basic level, staff need to understand that trafficked youth are coerced and exploited victims who often don’t see themselves that way. A trafficked girl might call a man her boyfriend and believe he’s her boyfriend, Schmidbauer says, “but he’s really her pimp.”
To promote the feeling of safety, programs should have policies that prohibit staff and youth from using the word “prostitute” or other derogatory terms, Laurence says. She also recommends hiring culturally competent staff and aiming for racial, ethnic and age diversity, as well as having staff who have survived trafficking or who understand the subculture and issue.
“People who won’t say, ‘Oh that’s so horrible,’ or have a rescue mentality,” she says. “It’s not about rescuing young people. It’s about giving them a safe environment to grow and have opportunities to move on with their lives.”
NCFY’s “Bought and Sold” brochure lists signs to look for to identify trafficked youth, and provides basic information for youth workers about how to help these young people.
GEMS offers survivor-led training and technical assistance.
Mary Schmidbauer directs Second Chance, a Toledo, OH, program that works with trafficked women and girls. In her interactions with young people, she uses a model she calls R.A.E., or Respect, Affirm, Empower:
Respect where they come from, what they’ve been through, where they’re at.
Affirm their surviving, their ingenuity and creativity.
Empower them to use the traits and qualities they know to make safer, better, more powerful choices for themselves.
The model could work well with any runaway or homeless young person, Schmidbauer says.
The Family and Youth Services Bureau and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are working together to test the ways runaway and homeless youth programs and local anti-trafficking task forces can collaborate to serve trafficked youth.
FYSB-funded runaway and homeless youth programs in Everett, WA, Miami, Seattle and Toledo, OH, work closely with the FBI’s Innocence Lost task forces in those areas. The task forces bring together local and federal law enforcement and service providers to recover victims of sexual exploitation and bring traffickers to justice.
“The key to combating domestic trafficking of young people for sex is for law enforcement and social services providers to work together,” says Curtis O. Porter, director of FYSB’s runaway and homeless youth programs. “We believe the lessons learned from these four demonstration cities can be spread across the country to the 40 other Innocence Lost task forces.”
Focused aftercare services can help youth stay on the right track when they leave a program and begin life on their own.
Things were going so well: A young woman who had recently left the transitional living program run by Youth Focus in High Point, NC, had just secured an apartment and a new job. She was making a life for herself that would have been inconceivable just a short while earlier, when she was homeless.
But her boyfriend was pressuring her. He moved in, borrowed money from her instead of getting his own job, and invited people over who brought drugs.
Because program director Karen Bridges and other Youth Focus staff regularly checked in with the young woman, they knew what was going on and could discreetly step in. To keep the young woman safe from old risks, they emphasized her new positive opportunities.
After steady, nonjudgmental discussions with Bridges about the importance of focusing on her own well-being and seeking out positive relationships to help her achieve her goals, the young woman decided to break up with her boyfriend.
On their own, youth who’ve recently left residential programs risk falling back in with abusive family members, violent communities or old friends who aren’t aware of their new lifestyles. They also risk forgetting the lessons they learned in life skills classes, focused on helping them lead safe, structured, independent lives. They still need someone there to help them navigate independence, and personalized, and attentive aftercare programs like the one at Youth Focus and other youth-serving agencies can serve as safety nets and prevent them from returning to dangerous old patterns and habits.
“They may have sat in the classes or passed the test,” explains Katie Kitchin, executive director of Memphis’s Community Alliance for the Homeless, “but when they actually go back into situations of stress they fall into old patterns.” An effective program, she explains, “provides the supports to you when you’re back in your natural environment. You’re much more likely to retain those lessons over time this way.”
Setting Youth Up for Safety and Success
The first step to keeping youth safe through aftercare is planning. At Youth Focus, Bridges and her colleagues help their clients create an individualized safety plan.
Before young people begin life on their own, Bridges sits down with them to make a list of possible dangers or troubles they might encounter--anything from being late on a rent payment to having a violent person show up at their apartment. Then she makes sure the youth has a protocol and number to call for every situation.
The next step is keeping in touch regularly.
Kitchin says that her organization schedules drop-in visits at the youths’ convenience, 30, 60 and 90 days after a youth leaves the program. Home visits mean the young people don’t have to travel or go out of their way to see a counselor, and it gives the counselors an intimate view of a client’s lifestyle. Kitchin addresses problems as they arise, the better to let young people take the lead in their own recovery process.
Kitchin remembers one client who, by the look and smell of things, had obviously used marijuana right before a visit. The young person’s indiscretion prompted a serious discussion of the risks of drug use, rather than a lecture about what the client should or should not do.
“Since we’re not there to take anybody’s housing away or instill a penalty, we can have a conversation about substance abuse or other problems with more trust,” Kitchin says. “They really feel they’re being listened to, and we respond to that problem through counseling and therapy.”
A New Job and New Friends
Even with support, youth may feel lonely starting anew. They may reach out to the wrong people for help, or give a hand to someone undeserving. Bridges has done her job long enough to know that young people typically don’t respond well to recriminations to stay away from bad people—especially when those people are friends they’ve had for years. Instead, as in the case of the client with the bulldozing boyfriend, she works with newly independent clients to help identify their own best interests and steer clear of negative influences from their earlier, more dangerous lifestyles.
“Particularly if they’ve had some negative relationships with boyfriends,” Bridges says, “it’s our job to help them become empowered. We talk with them about their relationships and encourage them to be more thoughtful of the ones they begin in the future. We want them to see what they do for themselves.”
Scott Kennelly, assistant director of clinical services for the Butte County Behavioral Health Program in California, says that in addition to feeling empowered, young people need healthy alternatives if they are to avoid heading right from a residential program back to an unsafe home or community.
For example, with money in their pockets, young people are less likely to rely on old acquaintances for food or a bed, he says. So, through a program called Paybucks, Butte County pays employers to hire young people who leave state shelters.
“We ask them to give the young people some shifts, train them, and we’ll pay their wages,” he says.
Since many of his clients have gangs and drug users in their old social networks, Kennelly’s team also offers positive activities, many held in schools or outdoors, to help them build new friendships.
“We want to make it easy to avoid old haunts,” Kennelly says. “We focus on helping them stay clean and sober and connect with positive peers.”