Addressing the Complexities of Family and Relationship Violence
When young people seek help from an emergency shelter funded by the Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB), nearly 9 times out of 10 they cite “family dynamics” among the reasons they left home.
The term can indicate many kinds of conflict—arguing with parents or a step parent, not getting along with a sibling—but for many young people it reflects an atmosphere of violence and abuse at home.
In fact, data collected by FYSB shows that a quarter or more of youth served by the Bureau’s Basic Center and Transitional Living Programs report abuse and neglect at home.
And research on street youth suggests that experiencing abuse at home increases the likelihood of being mistreated or becoming violent on the street. As the Federal agency that administers both runaway and homeless youth programs and family violence prevention and services programs, FYSB believes it is important for grantees and youth workers to understand the complexities of both family and relationship violence—especially as they relate to runaway and homeless youth.
For instance, while basic center programs aim to reunify families, they have to tread carefully when abuse enters the equation. Ensuring that a youth can safely return home can become especially difficult if someone in the household has verbally, emotionally, physically, or sexually abused the young person or another person in the home. Sending a young person back into a violent, abusive environment can be dangerous, youth workers say.
Another complication arises when a young victim of family or street violence has also abused others.
“In regular services, there are a perpetrator and a victim,” says Chic Dabby, director of the Asian & Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence at the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum. “In [runaway and homeless youth], the perpetrator is also a victim in some other context.” For instance, a young person abused at home or sexually assaulted on the street might perpetuate violence by abusing siblings or peers.
Youth workers have also found that runaway and homeless youth experience intimate partner violence— in which a boyfriend, girlfriend, or romantic partner physically, verbally, or emotionally abuses a young person—in different ways than their peers with stable homes do. Living on the street, young people are more likely to encounter violent situations and less likely to have people they can rely on to help them get out of those situations.
“Runaway and homeless youth have little or no support system,” says Lauren Cosetti, a case manager at Sand Castles Runaway and Homeless Youth Services in Ocean City, Maryland. These young people may find it hard to leave an abusive relationship, she says, because they feel the abuser is the only person they can depend on.
At the same time, adolescent dating violence shares many of the same characteristics as adult relationship violence, says Dawn Schatz, who directs youth development programs at Child, Inc., in Wilmington, Delaware. Schatz says that, like adult abusers, many young people who commit violence are often seeking to exert control because they feel like their lives are out of control.
For that reason, FYSB has sought to promote collaboration between grantees in the Family Violence Prevention and Services Program and the Runaway and Homeless Youth Program. In 2004, 13 domestic violence prevention programs partnered with runaway and homeless youth providers to conduct projects that ran through early 2006. FYSB funded an additional nine Domestic Violence/Runaway and Homeless Youth grantees in 2005, and the Bureau will announce new awards this year.
One project, a collaboration between the Mid-Atlantic Network of Youth & Family Services, called MANY, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, in Harrisburg, conducted a survey of workers at 54 youth-serving agencies and domestic violence services providers. More than 50 percent of runaway and homeless youth providers surveyed felt “extremely comfortable” addressing intimate partner violence with youth; the remainder reported feeling “rather” comfortable discussing the issue with youth. Still, nearly 40 percent said that in routine screening, they do not ask youth if they have been abused by a girlfriend or boyfriend.
“Most runaway and homeless youth providers screen for [family violence] but not necessarily partner violence,” says Megan Klein Blondin, executive director of MANY.
“The intake form asks what’s going on at home, but youth won’t necessarily relate that to their boyfriend or girlfriend or someone they’ve been intimate with.”
The survey also found that while all runaway and homeless youth providers said they were familiar with local domestic violence providers, 30 percent of domestic violence service providers did not know who provides runaway and homeless youth services in their communities. Klein Blondin adds that most runaway and homeless youth providers know how to get in touch with a domestic violence organization but not with groups dealing specifically with dating violence.
As a result of the survey, the two partner organizations have begun working to create protocols for identifying dating violence among runaway and homeless youth, and they also intend to increase connections between youth service providers and domestic violence providers in Pennsylvania.
“Our family violence and runaway and homeless providers are natural allies,” says Curtis Porter, acting associate commissioner of FYSB. Both separately and together, the Bureau’s programs are creating a safety net for youth at risk of abuse and mistreatment.