Get to Know a Grantee: Center for Youth Services

Teenage girl looking into the distance

The National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth & Families (NCHYF) developed the Get to Know a Grantee questionnaire to illustrate the great variety of youth-serving Family and Youth Services Grantees (FYSB) grantees, to share their insights on the work that they do, and to inspire collaboration and the sharing of experiences and ideas. We regularly share responses from grantees in the hope that you’ll learn more about the needs of runaway and homeless youth or, if you’re a grantee, that you’ll find some new approaches or ideas to inspire the work you do on behalf of vulnerable youth in your community. Contact us if you’d like to be featured.

The Center For Youth Services (CYS) in Rochester, NY, currently holds a Maternity Group Home (MGH) grant from FYSB, but their RHY services also encompass youth victims of trafficking. On the occasion of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, we spoke with Valerie Douglas, CYS’s Director of Runaway and Homeless Youth Programs, about their work with these overlapping populations.

NCHYF: How long have you had a FYSB grant?

VALERIE DOUGLAS: The Center for Youth Services (CYS) has been a FYSB grantee for over 20 years. Our FYSB funded programs includes Basic Center, Street Outreach, Transitional Living (TL), and Maternity Group Home programs.

NCHYF: What other sources of funding are essential to your programs?

DOUGLAS: CYS relies on multiple funding sources for all our programs. We find that braided funding is essential to the continuity, sustainability, and longevity of our crisis services. Sources include local city and county funding, United Way, other Federal funding, our regional Continuum of Care (CoC), local banks and private foundations, as well as intensive efforts at private fund raising. Our biggest event is Fashion Week of Rochester, when our entire community comes together to support local artists and youth.

NCHYF: How does your agency’s services for homeless youth overlap with your Safe Harbour program for youth at risk of, or who have been, trafficked?

DOUGLAS: We see very little difference between our Safe Harbour and the continuum of homeless youth services. The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA) was passed more than 40 years ago to address the needs of vulnerable young people who were living in the streets and became major targets for exploitation. Safe Harbour Advocates get referrals from all over our county, including our own RHY programs. The Advocates work with the youth to address the areas that are keeping them vulnerable to human trafficking, including housing, counseling, and education.

We also continually train our RHY staff to better identify, understand, and respond to a youth who may be already trafficked. This training requires us to assess our program policies and procedures to ensure that we are not making our programs unwelcoming to youth with these experiences or unintentionally making youth leave our program and return to their trafficker. Our RHY program staff work closely with the Safe Harbour Advocates, and they are also expected to speak with the young people in their programs in a way that conveys understanding and non-judgement, in case the youth chooses to disclose any experiences and wish to seek additional services.

NCHYF: What have been your most important collaborations with local partners?

DOUGLAS: Partnering with our local child welfare and law enforcement has been essential for identifying and serving youth who have been trafficked. The key component of this successful collaboration is respecting our roles. It is crucial that each partner understand everyone’s roles and responsibilities and not try to do each other’s work. Instead we have identified and partnered with specific people and agencies to ensure the young people’s needs are met.

NCHYF: What sets your organization apart from other similar organizations?

DOUGLAS: CYS’s commitment to young people is such that all of our services are free, voluntary, and confidential – a confidentiality that lies with the youth, not child welfare or parent/guardian. Young people seek out our services and take small steps to regain trust with systems and adults.

NCHYF: What do you wish more people in your community (or the country) understood about youth homelessness, particularly in regard to human trafficking?

DOUGLAS: There are many misconceptions about RHY and human trafficking that really get in the way of helping young people get out of these situations.

Myth:  vulnerable youth are trafficked by strangers.

Most young people who are targeted knew their trafficker prior to the onset of exploitation. They may have met them online or out in the community. In some cases, they find them in their own homes. Yes, a youth can be trafficked by a parent or guardian, in exchange for drugs or to pay the rent. It is also not unlikely that they love their trafficker or consider them a source of support and affection. Much like child molestation, children are more likely to know their perpetrator than to be picked up by a stranger on the street. Well-meaning service providers can make their programs unwelcoming and unappealing to youth if they require the youth to break all ties with, or make police reports on people they care about.

Myth:  Youth put themselves in harm’s way.

Child Welfare’s own data tell us that youth involved with foster care, child protective services, the juvenile justice system, or who have a history of running away are the most vulnerable to targeting by traffickers. Most minor victims of commercial sexual exploitation or trafficking are disconnected from supportive families and are what some call “systems kids.” Traffickers know that it is easier to groom and exploit youth who already mistrust the adults and organizations that say they will help them.

Myth:  Youth who aren’t grateful for services aren’t victims of a crime or deserving of help.

Despite progress in educating the public about human trafficking, there are some deep-rooted beliefs that trading sex for money, drugs, or a place to stay is a choice that can always be avoided. It’s a belief that somehow, the youth is to blame. It doesn’t help that many young people are not grateful when “rescued” and are not interested in yet another service provider controlling their lives. These perfectly understandable reactions can lead many providers or adults to become frustrated and give up trying to engage.

It is also not uncommon to hear folks argue that if a young person committed unlawful acts that they are not a victim. If the youth was out in the community, perhaps even going to school, the suspicion of their victim status becomes even greater. It can take time and patience to educate people about trauma bonds and the abusive relationship a youth may have with their trafficker. This relationship often resembles what we see in domestic violence. From years of research and data we know how difficult (and dangerous!) it is for a domestic violence victim to leave their abusive partner. We need to keep that in mind when working with a youth who is being controlled by, or in a relationship with, a trafficker. Much like domestic violence, it can be hard for those of us on the outside looking in to understand what the ties are that keep the victim from “escaping,” and to offer unconditional support through trauma-informed services.

Ultimately, the biggest myth of all is that this is something new in our society. As long as there have been vulnerable young people, there have been individuals exploiting them. That doesn’t mean that there is nothing to be done, it just means that we need to respond to youth in crisis in ways that meet their needs, and we need to examine how our “helping” systems can do better to reduce vulnerabilities and strengthen young peoples’ connections to healthy, supportive family and community.