The drafting and passage of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act followed a full day of congressional testimony by nearly a dozen youth workers and formerly homeless young people in 1973. Brian Slattery was one of those youth workers. Now the executive director of the Marin Treatment Center in San Rafael, CA, Slattery spoke with NCFY about his day on Capitol Hill and the experience of watching congress take action for the at-risk youth that he cared so deeply about.
NCFY: How did you end up testifying on the Hill in the first place?
Slattery: I was one of the managers at Huckleberry House at the time, and was contacted by Mathea Falco, the chief of staff for the Criminal Justice Committee on Juvenile Justice. That committee was chaired by [eventual RHYA author and sponsor] Birch Bayh.
She’d been told that Huckleberry House was the model for a few other centers around the country. We were founded in Haight-Ashbury in 1967 as an alternative to incarcerating runaway kids. A real struggle in San Francisco was that cops would just incarcerate them alongside kids that were accused of serious crimes. Or they’d ship them home, whether or not that was safe.
These kids were coming to Haight because it’d been portrayed by Time and Life [magazines] as a place where the streets were paved with gold, no one had to work, free love, all that. In response, we started offering family counseling, legal services, foster services.
NCFY: What was your role in the hearings?
Slattery: I was supposed to be an intelligent adult talking to senators in a language they could understand. I made the case that this wouldn’t be a threat to the juvenile justice system, it would actually allow them to focus on the kids who belonged in that system. Ten to 12 people testified, about half of which were youth. The kids who testified had all been seriously abused in their family homes. They told emotional stories, and clearly weren’t a threat to anybody. They were asking for help, and they told the senators that this kind of place helped them get away from an abusive family.
Senator Birch Bayh visited our program. He wanted to have sandwiches with the kids for lunch. He sat and listened to a bunch of kids who just happened to be in the shelter at the time. They were very impressed with him.
NCFY: When the Act finally passed, what effect did that have on your work?
Slattery: The RHYA was our first stable funding. Before, [our budget] was a shoestring and a prayer. Our other grants all had very limited scopes and times. A local council of churches donated clothing, places to stay, and volunteers. The legitimacy of the Act also made other more conservative agencies at the state and local level come up with funding.
NCFY: What do you consider to be the ultimate legacy of the Act and your role in its passage?
Slattery: The act really supported what came to be the decriminalization of runaway and homeless youth. A lot of people had a hard time appreciating was that [programs like Huckleberry House] did family counseling. Not every family was abusive. Many kids just needed more space, and better communication. We did a lot of family reunification. [The Act] allowed these kids to return home, finish school, and be successful. It helped kids normalize who were in crisis. It got kids out of the juvenile justice system who were not criminals.