Sixteen-year-old Sarah ran away from home repeatedly. Her parents would call the police and Children's Administration, to no avail. Finally they called Friends of Youth, and when Sarah turned up she was admitted to one of FOY's youth shelters.
Sarah told the on-site therapist that she thought her parents were overly controlling and didn't really love her; they’d even blamed her for a sexual assault she suffered while on the run. But with counseling Sarah’s family got better at communicating with each other, rebuilt trust and made a plan for reuniting. Sarah went back home, resumed high school and got a part-time job. According to FOY's CEO Terry Pottmeyer, she hasn’t run away for two months.
No question Sarah was a kid at risk. Pimps and pushers start grooming young runaways like her soon after they wander into places like Westlake Center: Hey, you hungry? Need a place to sleep? Add muggers and other thugs to the welcoming committee, and it’s clear that minors should never wind up on the streets, or should be returned home fast when they do, if home is safe.
Even one assault is traumatic, and kids who are repeatedly brutalized come to think they don’t deserve better. It's one reason street youth can grow up to be homeless adults, says Sarah Christiansen, director of residential and outreach services at Auburn Youth Resources. By the age of 23 or so, she says, most chronically homeless youngsters have stopped believing in themselves enough to seek a way out.
Helping kids who end up on the streets is critical. More important is keeping kids from being kicked out or running away in the first place.
Homeless youth service providers in King County now offer prevention programs that help families stay together or reunite with their offspring. It’s a change in provider philosophy, according to Melinda Giovengo (above), executive director of YouthCare. For half a century parents in crisis were often considered their estranged kid’s biggest problem. Today they’re treated as potentially part of the solution. It's a more humane view, for when a child runs or is driven away, “the whole family suffers,” says Giovengo. It’s also practical: “Whatever modicum of relief we can bring to [parents] helps our youth.”
Safety comes first, of course. Youth social workers dealing with families make careful judgments about every home situation. Any question about a youngster’s safety sparks a call to DSHS Child Protection Services or immediate placement at an emergency shelter. Short of that, the focus is on resolving family conflicts and creating opportunities for families to grow healthier. Here are three of the most innovative efforts to keep families healthy and together.
1. Safe Place
After an argument with his mother a teenage boy ran away, determined to find the father he hadn’t seen in years. He was “using a 13-year-old’s judgment,” says YouthCare prevention program manager Morgan Silverman. The young man walked from Seattle to Renton and arrived late that night at a distant relative’s door. There he was told to get on a bus and ask the driver for Safe Place. “We met him at a Renton bus terminal and took him to an emergency shelter for minors," Silverman says. "He was reunited with his mother in the morning.”
Like the boy’s relatives, you have surely seen the Safe Place signs. They're prominently displayed on every Metro bus and in shop windows throughout King County. Safe Place is a 24/7 response system used across the nation to protect homeless kids age 12-17, either by reuniting youngsters with their families or placing them in an under-18 shelter for the night.
Safe Place launched in King County in 2011. The program is run as a partnership among YouthCare, Friends of Youth and Auburn Youth Resources. By late 2013 the three partners had recruited 28 local businesses and nonprofits to open over 1,800 Safe Place sites throughout King County.
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