Providing free and confidential counseling, 24-hour hotlines, and group sessions where families facing similar challenges can come together are key to helping prevent youth from running away . Although demands for these services have increased over the past two years of the country’s economic troubles, prevention programs have been eliminated in many areas.
Create Safe Places
Family Resources Inc.
Pinellas Park, Fla.
The Strategy: Provide youth safe temporary shelter and counseling services, as well as local outreach in area schools to deter runaways and reunite families.
Getting Started: Family Resources Inc. was founded in 1970 and received its first Federal Runaway and Homeless Youth grant in 1978 through the Administration for Children and Families, now part of the Department of Health and Human Services, to open a shelter. The agency became part of the national Safe Place network in 1991. The Safe Place program offers a network of youth-friendly public places, from libraries to YMCAs, where young people in crisis can gain quick assistance from professionally trained counselors and volunteers.
How It Works: The Safe Place portion of Family Resources’ services has two prongs – outreach in area schools and direct services to runaway and at-risk youth. The program provides educational outreach in 16 area middle schools, nine high schools and three alternative schools, offering 150 class presentations annually.
Safe Place Coordinator Vincent Renzi says part of his presentation focuses on the resources provided by Safe Place, including how to use the network of Safe Places (there are 172 in the Pinellas Park area) and how to get help when in crisis at home, and also educating young people on the dangers of living on the street.
Renzi always conducts a question-and-answer session to help get youth talking about why they or their peers might run away and what the options are for a young person who finds himself in a situation at home of verbal, sexual or physical abuse. He says he can often tell which kids are having trouble at home when he talks about how, for example, 70 percent of runaways in the area leave home because of an alcoholic parent.
“A big part of prevention programming is letting them know the facts,” Renzi says. The agency offers family and youth counseling, separately or together. “If you have an issue, talk to your parent, your teacher or a family friend,” Renzi advises. The first three counseling sessions are provided free, and Family Resources can make arrangements for extending the counseling.
Family Resources also provides temporary shelter assistance to runaway youth and emergency assistance through the network of “safe places” that includes public libraries, fire stations, Boys & Girls Clubs, video stores and other public sites where young people can be picked up by Yellow Cab and taken to one of two Family Resources shelters.
Youth Served: In 2009, about 15,000 area children were involved in the outreach curriculum. In that same year, Family Resources also provided services to 430 children in two shelters. Of about 40 youths a month – ranging in age from 10 to 18 – who enter the agency’s shelters, about three come from a Safe Place location. President and CEO Jane Harper says the shelters see an overrepresentation of African-American youth from low-income families. Most children are running from alcoholic, neglectful or abusive parents or are trying to escape too much responsibility in a single-parent household.
Staff: Family Resources employs 140 staff members, 90 of whom work directly in runaway and runaway prevention programs. The agency has case managers and family counselors available on site.
Cost: The agency’s annual budget is about $2.5 million. Funding comes from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice through the Florida Network of Youth and Family Services Inc., the Federal Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, and the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County.
Results: Harper says 85 percent to 90 percent of youth who use the shelters are reunited with their families or placed in another safe living situation, and 90 percent of youth who seek out a Safe Place do not enter or re-enter the juvenile justice system.
Answer the Call
National Runaway Switchboard
The Strategy: Provide confidential and anonymous phone counseling, referral services, crisis intervention and family reunification services through a 24-hour hotline.
Getting Started: The National Runaway Switchboard (NRS) was established in 1971 to provide crisis intervention for runaway and neglected youth in Chicago. In 1974, when Congress passed the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, NRS received a demonstration grant for a pilot project for a national hotline. In the first eight months, the NRS had more than 11,000 calls, which led to the development of a national hotline that serves young people in crisis 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, throughout the United States and its territories.
How It Works: Youth who are in crisis, who have run away from home or are considering running away from home can call the hotline any hour of the day. There is no caller identification, so contact is anonymous. “That’s critical in encouraging kids to make that call,” says NRS executive director Maureen Blaha.
When a call comes in, NRS staff members and/or volunteers first determine if the young person is in a safe place and then work on an action plan to get the youth out of the situation that has put him or her in crisis. That includes listening to the youth’s issues and providing information and referrals to one of 13,000 partner organizations nationwide that provide assistance to young people, including shelters, counselors, food programs and housing. NRS also offers a three-way calling service that allows an NRS volunteer to facilitate a call between a youth and a shelter, for example. NRS offers a message service to enable young people to exchange messages with family members.
If NRS is able to assist a young person in reuniting with family, it provides a bus ticket to get that child or teen home and then makes follow-up calls to ensure the family is taking advantage of local counseling services. “The No. 1 goal is family reunification, when possible,” says Blaha. “If it’s not possible, we work with youth to find alternative living conditions.” That may include living with a relative or, for those 18 and older, entering a transitional housing program.
Youth Served: NRS fields over 100,000 incoming and outgoing calls annually. Callers typically range in age from 12 to 21, though Blaha says most are 17 or 18 years old; 72 percent of callers are females. Blaha says 60 percent of callers are already away from home; the others are thinking of running away. The self-reported reasons for running away include poor family dynamics, peer or social pressure, bullying and academic concerns.
Staff: The organization has 22 paid staff members, the majority of whom are call center supervisors. Most of the calls are fielded by NRS’ cadre of 150 trained volunteers. Each volunteer works a two- to four-hour shift once a week.
Cost: NRS operates on an annual budget of $2.2 million and receives funding from the Family and Youth Services Bureau in HHS’ Administration for Children and Families, the Elizabeth Morse Genius Charitable Trust, the John R. Houlsby Foundation, the Coldwell Banker Charitable Foundation, the Chicago Cubs, the A. Montgomery Ward Foundation and many other corporate and private donors.
Results: Because of the anonymity afforded callers, the organization is unable to track the long-term results of its call center efforts. However, NRS has reunited 13,000 youth with their families since 1995, and 85 percent of callers are first-timers. Blaha says she hopes that means that only 15 percent of youth with whom NRS works require crisis intervention services a second time.
Keep Youth from Running Again
Adventist Behavioral Health
The Strategy: Provide support services for youth who have previously run away and for their families, to prevent recidivism.
Getting Started: Part of Adventist Behavioral Health, a comprehensive provider of mental health services operating under the Adventist HealthCare system, Operation Runaway was founded 18 years ago as a partnership between Potomac Ridge Behavioral Health (Adventist’s predecessor) and the Montgomery County Police Department. The two groups’ plan was to find a way to keep youth who had run away from home from leaving again after they had been reunited with their families.
How it Works: Weekly group meetings involving runaway youth and their families – not quite counseling or therapy – are the centerpiece of Operation Runaway’s preventive programming. Every other Wednesday, youths who have run away from home attend a 1½-hour group session with their parents to discuss issues that lead young people to run away. On alternate Wednesdays, parents meet with Adventist clinicians in a group session, without children present.
To participate, each family must commit to three months of sessions, though therapist Debra Caplan, who oversees Operation Runaway, says many families participate for up to a year. On the other hand, about two-thirds of the families never make it to three months.
Though the group sessions aren’t quite therapy, participating families must set treatment goals. “Everyone here is going through same thing,” Caplan says, pointing to the connections that develop among the families participating in the group sessions.
The parents-only sessions usually begin with a presentation on parenting topics, such as setting limits, disciplining out-of-control children and learning to listen. A discussion follows, involving parents and Adventist clinicians.
In alternate weeks when parents attend with their children, the format is similar, starting with a presentation on issues that often lead young people to run away in the first place – including bullying, sexual abuse and peer pressure – followed by an informal group discussion. Caplan says the format works, because she has seen teenagers talk back to their parents in group sessions, often using disrespectful language, only to find themselves corrected by other youths in the group. Together, the group, which often numbers as many as 20 people, works through communication issues, parenting strategies and coping mechanisms for times when there is conflict.
Operation Runaway also helps children and parents gain access to any needed community resources, including outside individual counseling services.
Youth Served: Caplan says in 2009, Operation Runaway served about 80 different families. Youths involved in the program are middle school and high school students, the vast majority of them from low-income, single-parent, Spanish-speaking families.
Staff: Three licensed social workers provide services in the Operation Runaway program.
Cost: Operation Runaway has no set budget, but is financed as part of the overall program of services offered to youth through Adventist Behavioral Health.
Results: Caplan says Operation Runaway has been successful in meeting its main goal of preventing runaway youth who have returned home from running away a second time. She says the program’s success rate is near 100 percent for families that stick with the sessions for at least three months. For Caplan, the key is teaching parents how to discipline and follow through and giving them access to resources they need to be successful parents.