Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Teen Runaways: Which Ones Do We Need to Worry About?

From JoinTogether Online:

Most runaway teens return home on their own shortly after leaving, and few fit the stereotype of deeply troubled youth, according to researchers at UCLA.

Science Daily reported Dec. 5 that researcher Norweeta G. Milburn of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA said that stereotypes of runaways have been formed because most studies have focused on teens who repeatedly run away.

"Our finding goes against the grain of what most people envision a homeless teenager's life to be -- a life filled with maltreatment, substance abuse, disorganization, conflict and violence," said Milburn. "While that is certainly true of chronic runaways, in fact, more than two-thirds of newly homeless youth leave the streets, resolve their family differences and go home.

"Further, the key appears to be that a family intervention, no matter how brief, can improve the chances that new runaways will go home and stay home," Milburn said.
Teens who maintain relationships with non-runaway friends, have stayed in school and sense the support of their parents -- especially mothers -- are more likely to return home, the research found.

The study, which tracked 183 newly homeless adolescents in Los Angeles, appears in the December 2009 issue of the Journal of Research on Adolescence.

Not surprisingly, we had a bit of a reaction to this piece.

I checked with Doug Tanner, our resident homeless youth specialist. He said:

Not new information – but potentially dangerous if improperly interpreted.

This is similar to statistics documenting that 75% of homeless people are homeless for less than 90 days and only 25% are chronically homeless. However, at any given time the majority of those that are homeless are chronically homeless. This is because the 75% who are not chronically homeless cycle through while the chronic population remains homeless. This is a well documented and often misrepresented fact.

So, this is not new news. It is just another statistical spin.

The percentage of runaways who do not return home, have no functional home to return to, and experience trauma and other bad stuff as a result of neglect and homelessness are very likely a small percentage of homeless youth, but at any given moment in time are likely to make up a large percentage - possibly even a majority of RHY youth.

The key word in this summary below is “two-thirds of newly homeless” etc. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if 80% of newly homeless youth returned home within 30 days. There are more fresh “newly homeless” kids every day – thousands and thousands. They aren’t the ones we need to be the most concerned about – AND NEITHER SHOULD THIS RESEARCHER WHO THINKS HE’S ON TO SOMETHING NEW.

Another example of sorts: in World War II, only about 20% of American soldiers saw combat. But because the powers that be discovered that experienced soldiers were more effective than replacements, the chances were very high that anyone who did see combat was stuck there for the entire war unless they were badly wounded, captured or killed. Meanwhile, everyone else (the other 80%) cycled in and out of assignments. The chronically homeless, young and old, are like combat soldiers in WWII – everyone else gets relieved, but they’re stuck.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The New Science on 'Orchid Children': Considering the Implications

From the December issue of the Atlantic Monthly comes an important article that reconsiders the potential of "vulnerable" children to contribute to society. "Most of us have genes that make us as hardy as dandelions: able to take root and survive almost anywhere," the intro reads. "A few of us however, are more like the orchid: fragile and fickle, but capable of blooming spectacularly if given greenhouse care. So holds a provocative new theory of genetics, which asserts that the very genes that give us the most trouble as a species, causing behaviors that are self-destructive and anti-social, also underlie humankind's phenomenal adaptability and evolutionary success. With a bad environment and poor parenting, orchid children can end up depressed, drug-addicted, or in jail. But with the right environment and good parenting, they can grow up to be society's most creative, successful, and happy people." It's the ultimate "strengths-based" approach. The good news: there's a new body of science to back it up.


Monday, October 26, 2009

NYT Story Hightlights the 'New Runaways'

From today's New York Times:

Recession Drives Surge in Youth Runaways

As more families face economic hardships, experts have seen an increasing number of children leave home for life on the streets, including many under 13.

One reader commented:

I never considered myself a "runaway" though I left my family at age 15. My heart goes out to these young people. I know what it is like to feel that kind of desperation. I also know the feeling of liberation once you leave an untenable situation.In my case, I can only say that what saved my life was a woman who brought me into her home and gave me safety, believed what I was telling her (though the stories were very slow from my end out of shame and fear), and asked for little in return. Her generousity of spirit and unbending confidence in me is what helped me to heal and develop a life for myself.I did not use drugs or alcohol, and at 17, enrolled in an Ivy League college on financial aid and grants, and supported myself 100% from working bad jobs while going through school, which I completed in four years.What every runaway needs is one single compassionate person to believe them, and in them, and with little effort will bring him/her into their fold, listen and love. This is what humanity is all about.

Doug Tanner, NEN's technical assistance coordinator and a specialist in runaway and homeless youth programs, add this:

This NYT story, combined with the video “When No One’s Looking,” provide a powerful and personal look at youth homelessness. We know that families are under extreme stress due to the recession. Given the usual increases in substance abuse and domestic violence when times are tough, it stands to reason that youth are suffering in disproportionate numbers. In a small study on disabilities among homeless youth we did in the mid-90’s, 60% of the youth who participated in a Transitional Living Program in Greenfield, MA were disabled in some way -- physically, cognitively or emotionally. The personal stories of the youth in the NYTimes story and the corresponding video were all too familiar in that respect. Few people can go through months or years of fear, malnutrition, and violence of the sort that is encountered living “on the street” and survive without long-term or permanent damage. The damage caused often results in chronic disease, mental disorders or physical disabilities.

It’s important to remember that only a few of these kids will actually survive intact. In our society, we tend to focus on those who overcome difficult circumstances – we are inspired by the remarkable stories of courage and persistence that some survivors are able to tell. However, in real life, many, if not most will be harmed for life. AIDS, HepC, pre-mature cancer, PTSD, emotional instability, substance abuse and terrible injuries are just some what’s in store for them.

Ironically, the cost of providing adequate alternatives to many, if not most of the youth who are in these circumstances could be easily done if the country only would prioritize the issue. State child protective systems are not the answer. Most homeless youth are too old to be served effectively by child protective systems. One part of the answer is really simple – expand by tenfold the Runaway and Homeless Youth programs we have now. Despite the fact that they have proven to be cost effective with demonstrated results, there are still only about 200 Transitional Living Programs in the US. Many states only have one or two, some have none. The combined cost of these programs is only 40 million dollars a year – an absolute drop-in-the-bucket in terms of federal expenditures. The abstinence programs, that we have hopefully seen the last of, were costing us 100 million dollars a year. Put all of that money into transitional living, shelter and outreach programs for youth and young adults, then multiply it by three (still less than half a billion!) and we’d be able to do something about this – and save ourselves 100 fold in the next 10 or 20 years – not only in terms of less crime, homelessness and disease, but in return on investment when youth who participate in RHY programs grow up to become healthy, contributing citizens.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Money to Burn in Georgia

This story from today's Washington Post caught my attention, and not, shall we say, in a good way. My first thought: When staff from children's agencies have to jump in Boston Harbor in February to raise money for their "cause" (which is actually society's cause, of course), it is hard to imagine lawyers, however dedicated they may be, reaping this kind of windfall for merely doing their job. I'm all for advocates making a living wage (me being one of those advocates), and even profiting through exceptional competence. But when states are cutting services to children all over the place, when residential treatment as a very concept is endangered, why not put that $4.5 million toward - I don't know, the children in question? Just a thought. Public service lawyers everywhere are encouraged to disagree strenuously.

From the Post:

The Supreme Court spends a sizable portion of its time dealing with lawyers gone bad: the ones who miss critical filing deadlines, put up halfhearted defenses of clients facing death row, give bad advice with disastrous results.

On Wednesday, the court was faced with what to do about lawyers who do good. And also, extremely well.

The justices focused on a group of lawyers from a children's rights group and a private law firm who won a transformation of the state of Georgia's dysfunctional foster-care system. Their work on behalf of 3,000 children so impressed the federal judge who presided over the case that he awarded them a bonus of $4.5 million -- on top of the $6 million in legal fees he told the state to pay.

It made for an animated debate on the skyrocketing cost of legal work, exorbitant salaries for lawyers, whether judges should grade the lawyers who come before them and whether Congress intended some sort of bonus for lawyers who take on uncertain and sometimes unpopular civil rights cases.

Federal law allows those who prevail in such cases to recover their fees, and the judge in the case calculated those fees by multiplying what he thought were the reasonably expected billable hours by the prevailing hourly rate in Atlanta for such work, ranging from $215 an hour for the most junior associate to up to $495 for the most experienced partner.

But U.S. District Judge Marvin H. Shoob went further in awarding the bonus. He said the lawyers from the group Children's Rights and Atlanta's Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore law firm displayed a "higher degree of skill, commitment, dedication and professionalism" than he had seen during his time on the bench, and that in "58 years as a practicing attorney and federal judge, the court is unaware of any other case in which a plaintiff class has achieved such a favorable result on such a comprehensive scale."

The state of Georgia balked at paying the multimillion-dollar bonus, and said neither federal law nor Supreme Court precedent allowed such "enhancements."

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Who Cares? Let's Find Out

From Melanie Goodman:

I had a chance to hear leadership guru Margaret Wheatley in NH last week. It was a shot in the arm, a reminder why we do this work, and there were many take-aways. Given the tough job of providing resources to local communities from afar, which is afterall NEN’s modus operandi, it helped to be reminded that an assets approach to community work fights the impulse to create more rules and regulations, look for the perfect leader, and rely on outside experts (even though this last one contradicts NEN to some extent). Instead, the assets approach assumes:

· We have what we need
· Leaders are already here
· Every situation is workable
· Most people want to help others
· We have triumphed in much worse circumstances
· We can be fearless and bold; indeed we already have been

I also am a big fan of saying it straight, and resonated to many of these quotes Wheatley shared during her presentation:

“To get help, find the issue that people care about.” (vs. naming your issue and finding people to work it).

“To change the conversation, change who is in the conversation.” (I feel like we all get stuck here A LOT.)

“Don’t ask what’s wrong; ask what’s possible and who cares?” (In truth, I think we’re afraid to ask this question because maybe no one does care about the thing(s) we care about.)

“We don’t have an accountability problem; we have a caring problem.” (If we ‘care’ we’ll automatically be accountable? Really? Hmmm.)

But my personal favorite was:

“You can’t hate the person whose story you know.” I’m attempting to teach this very thing to my highly judgmental 12-year-old. No small feat.

So I went ahead and bought Wheatley’s new book, Finding Our Way. I may make it NEN’s next Virtual Book Group pick. Any joiners? I’m expecting to hear from all you Wheatley fans out there.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Heads Up: Income-Based Repayment Could Make a Serious Difference for Low-Paid Direct-Service Staff

A few weeks ago we ran an item in Into Practice, our e-newletter, about Income-Based Repayment, a new and much-needed strategy to make paying back student loans more affordable. I can't figure out why more people aren't excited about this. Could it be that they don't know about it?

From the IBR website:

Income-Based Repayment (IBR) is a new payment option for federal student loans. It can help borrowers keep their loan payments affordable with payment caps based on their income and family size. For most eligible borrowers, IBR loan payments will be less than 10 percent of their income - and even smaller for borrowers with low earnings. IBR will also forgive remaining debt, if any, after 25 years of qualifying payments.

There are also public-service loan forgiveness programs for which social service workers may be eligible after 10 years of payments and employment. Low-earning workers, social workers ... ring any bells?

The most important thing is that anyone can try to improve the terms of his or her loan, no matter when they borrowed. So IRB is highly relevant to direct-service workers, for instance, many of whom say they would stay in the field if not for student loans.

The IRB website has comprehensive information about repayment options, the loan forgiveness option including a repayment calculator, and links to webinars for more information. Link:

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Another Piece Disappears

Last week, in our regular e-newsletter, we published a short essay about the closing of OdysseyNH, a residential substance-abuse treatment center for adolescents in Hampton, NH. Here's what we said:

It was with sadness and and a sense of foreboding that we noted, here in New Hampshire, the death of OdysseyNH, an agency providing residential care to troubled adolescents. Odyssey House (later renamed OdysseyNH) opened its doors in 1970, and I first got to know it when I went to work as a local newspaper reporter here in the early '80s. Yet I'd never been inside til last October, when I was preparing a study on the condition of the children's mental health workforce in New Hampshire. It looked a lot like every agency. Maybe a little busier, more chaotic and noisy, but then, the agency's recovery school -- the only one in the state -- had just let out for the day, and vans were crowding the driveway. Some of the kids were headed off to a game somewhere, and shifts were changing. There was lots of laughing and high-fiving.

Things weren't particularly good at the agency -- I knew that -- but then, they weren't good anywhere. Censuses were down at residential programs throughout the state. I sat down with a program director and he told me the agency hadn't anticipated how rapidly funding for residential treatment would deteriorate. Odyssey was expert in treating youth with substance abuse and delinquency issues, and that's all they wanted to do; changing direction in some big and fundamental way clearly seemed almost impossible to them. I asked where the youth were going who used to be referred to Odyssey. The director shrugged and said he had no idea. This seemed incredible to me. He had to know, I thought. Surely, I suggested to him, a clear policy had been articulated at the state level on this transition away from residential treatment; a plan had been laid out and goals had been established. That way, agencies like Odyssey -- the ones who knew the most about troubled youth and what they needed -- would know what to expect and how to adjust. But my question must have struck him as naive, because he just looked at me and smiled.

I came back a couple of weeks later to interview nine front-line staffers. A veteran worker complained about low pay and high turnover, and said he was pushing for change. Younger workers told me they loved the kids but had to work second jobs to make ends meet. Lots of them were going back for advanced degrees; they liked the work, but the pay was killing them. Wht they really needed was a higher-level job, they figured. One staffer who had just finished her master's degree asked if there was anywhere in the state she could work where her student loans would be forgiven; anywhere at all, because she'd be willing to move there. I promised her I'd try to find out.

But despite the obvious stress they were under, the workers at Odyssey were pretty much like the workers at every other agency I spoke to: clear-eyed yet hopeful about their clients, and full of that spirit of jokey camaraderie so common among youthworkers. I liked them, and respected for them doing such a tough job. As we know, the marginalization of residential treatment is a big, complicated story -- one ultimately about economics and philosophy. Outcomes for youth will be similarly complicated. Right now, though, I'm pausing for this one, simple story. Goodbye, Odyssey.

A number of people responded to this article, thanking us for calling attention to the stresses that the field - and particularly residential services - are under. But we have two follow-up questions for our readers:1. In your community, where are the youth who are no longer being referred to your programs actually going? Are they simly being stepped down to a less intensive of care, and if so, what's happening to them there? 2. Given the current climate in the field, where are you seeing INCREASED demand for front-line staff, and where are you seeing DECREASED demand?