April is Child Abuse Prevention month. It is a time to acknowledge the importance of individuals, families and communities working together to prevent child abuse and neglect, and to promote the social and emotional well-being of children and families Last month I had the privilege of marching on the hill in DC. with the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) telling the senators to Do Their Job. NCJW is committed to endorsing for laws, programs and services that protect children from abuse, neglect, bullying, exploitation, trafficking and violence. I urged Illinois Congressional leaders to fully fund the Runaway Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act to Illinois.
Every day in this country, youth run away from home, are kicked out, exiting juvenile detention centers or welfare systems with nowhere to go. According to the National Runaway Safeline (Formerly the National Runaway Switchboard,) between 1.6-2.8 million youth runaway each year in the United States. Children can begin running as young as ages 10-14. The youngest are the most at-risk for the dangers of street life.
According to the National Runaway Safeline, children runaway because:
- 47% of runaway youth report conflict between them and a parent/guardian in the home.
- Over 50% of youth in shelters or on the streets reported that their parents told them to leave or knew they were leaving but did not care
- 80% of runaway & homeless girls reported having been sexually or physically abuse.
- 43% of runaway youth (girls and boys) reported physical abuse before leaving home.
For over four decades the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RYHA) provided three types of assistance to help communities deliver lifesaving supportive services for youth. The Basic Center Program provided shelter and basic necessities for younger children up to 21 days. The Transition Living Program is geared for older children 16-21 providing developmentally appropriate and readily accessible trauma informed services. The Street Outreach Programs provides service referral, crisis intervention at street locations and drop in centers.
In 2103 the money ran out. Since then state and local agencies have been attempting to fulfill those roles. But like many states, Illinois is cutting back on mental health services and needed care. Today with bipartisan support The Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act (s262/hr1179) would reauthorize and strengthen these three critical programs in addition to collecting trafficking data, adding a nondiscriminatory clause and increase the length of stay in Basic Center to 30 days, requiring suicide prevention services in transitional living programs
Runaway and homeless youth are especially vulnerable to becoming victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation. Traffickers prey on their vulnerability. They say” I will take care of you. I can provide food and a place to stay. Let me help.” The National center for Missing and Exploited Children said 1 in 5 of the 11, 8000 runaways reported in 2015 they were likely to be victims of sex trafficking. Furthermore, 28% of the youth living on the street trade sex for basic needs such as food. A growing number of homeless youth identify as lesbian gay, bisexual or transgender. (LBGT): Data suggests they make up 40 percent of runaways today. This bill gives them protection from discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sexual orientation or gender, much like Violence Against Women Act or Head Start. The non-discrimination language is key not re-victimize youth when seeking care
We know for forty years that RHYA has worked. Each year 25000 youth find shelter through the RHYA street outreach program. In 2104 after receiving trauma informed counseling and care, 85% of youth exited these programs and returned safely. In 2103, 72% of youth RHYA temporary housing reunited with their families.
In addition federal programs like this are cost effective. Homeless and runaway youth are disproportionality involved in public healthcare, juvenile justice systems. In 2009 the public cost of services for a homeless individual in Los Angeles, including shelter, health care was $2897 per month- significantly higher than $605 per month for residents in supportive housing. I know what it is like to be sexually abused. I did not run away but I know plenty of people who did. I know what I have spent on healing. The long term consequences of abuse, physical, mental and social are devastating. The actual dollars spent on additional health care is huge for the individual. Studies indicate moving 500 youth from the juvenile justice system to transitional programs could save anywhere between 5 and 20 million dollars.
The modest investment in Runaway and Homeless Youth act programs has laid a foundation for a national system of services for our displaced youth. This essential program must continue. Please write your legislatures today and tell them to fully fund the Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act.