Seton Youth Shelters would like to continue providing runaway help on the Peninsula although funding has been cut
January 02, 2013|By Tara Bozick, email@example.com | 757-247-4741
On Tuesday afternoons, a social worker and counselor set out on a never-ending mission to keep youth from running away on the Peninsula. LeTonya Parks and Chris Parkin visit the same Newport News and Hampton neighborhoods twice a week after school lets out. When they see young people congregating in the Southeast Community, they stop the Seton Youth Shelters van and introduce themselves.
“Hey, ladies, have you seen us out here before?” Parkin asks
“Uh huh,” two girls say, nodding.
He hands them business cards that tell how to contact the Seton Youth Shelters outreach program and the National Runaway Switchboard’s resource hotline. He asks them to spread the word, particularly if they know anyone who has or would run away. He offers them a snack, donated by a Virginia Beach bakery or hygiene products.
They get back in the van and head onto another Southeast neighborhood. They target sites where youth have been found homeless or may be at risk of running away. Generally, these are the same places where poverty is rampant and many kids are unsupervised in the streets after school as their parents are working.
‘A huge social issue’
As of mid-October, Newport News police received 406 runaway reports and Hampton had 381, according to detectives. Most of the children reported missing in Virginia, about 90 percent, are runaways, according to Virginia State Police.
“We look at the runaway problem as a huge social issue,” said Robert Lowery with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The center helps police and families find missing children by distributing photos, fliers and tracking youth through their friends and social networks.
The public lacks an understanding of the runaway issue, Lowery said, adding that teens on the street are vulnerable to becoming victims of crime or exploitation like prostitution. Sometimes they may need to resort to crime like theft or selling drugs to survive, he said.
While parents and police report behavioral or disciplinary issues as reasons youth run away, the No. 1 reason reported by runaway youth is “family dynamics” like conflict in the home between parents, divorce or a new stepparent, said Maureen Blaha, executive director of the National Runaway Switchboard. About 6 percent of the “runaway” callers to the hotline have been kicked out of the home, she said.
The switchboard provides a hotline for youth who are thinking about running away or who have run away and need help. The switchboard can mediate communication between youth and parents to help reunite the family or connect them to resources like family counseling.
In 2011, the switchboard revived 435 calls from the 757 area code and 284 calls from the 804 area code, Blaha said. The runaway youth, primarily adolescents, come from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Often, they stay with friends or “couch surf,” staying on a sofa wherever they can find one, Blaha said.
“Honestly, it could be your cousin, your neighbor, your friend’s daughter,” Blaha said. “It really could be anyone.”
Destiny is missing
In November, the adoptive parents of an 11-year-old girl recently woke up to find an empty bed and no sign of their daughter.
The Wilkinson family of Newport News reported to police that Destiny was missing and possibly went to see her biological family in New York. By the end of the day, the girl was found at a local Walgreens drug store after a patron recognized her from her photo on the news.
When youth need help, they want to talk to someone who they feel they can trust. That’s why Parks and Parkin consistently return to the same areas to build relationships with the people who reside there.
“When they get comfortable, they start telling you some stuff,” Parkin said. “Coming into their neighborhoods is huge.”
The Seton shelter
The Peninsula Street Outreach Program in Newport News and Hampton made 21,600 youth contacts last year, according to agency logs. Often, parents in the neighborhoods will stay in contact with the counselors to vent and get guidance on discipline and behavioral issues at home. Homeless youth can call the Seton outreach hotline 24/7 for the van to pick them up and drive them to the only program-structured youth homeless shelter in Hampton Roads at the Seton Youth Shelter in Virginia Beach.
The van’s counselors can also provide friends with a phone so they can call a youth they know has run away.
Often, the counselors serve as mediators between teens and parents in efforts to reunite the family. At times, they’ll meet in the guidance office of schools where the family creates a plan to improve, most often in the area of communication, they said.
Parkin recalled how the Salvation Army called to let the counselors know about a high school senior who was found sleeping in the dugout of a baseball field in Hampton. While he stayed in the shelter, the counselors helped the teen and his foster mom talk out problems and he returned to a changed home and keeps in touch for counseling, Parkin said.
But the outreach program had to decrease its Peninsula visits from five days to two days a week when its funding from a federal runaway and homeless youth grant program was cut from $100,000 to $20,000 this year, said Executive Director Jennifer Sieracki of Seton Youth Shelters. Funding for the Peninsula and for South Hampton Roads comes from different grants.
The agency has been operating a van outreach program throughout Hampton Roads since 1999.
Now, the nonprofit is seeking private support or partnerships to continue and perhaps in the future expand services on the Peninsula, she said.
“The need is still there,” Sieracki said.
Want to help or need help?
For more information, call Jennifer Sieracki at Seton Youth Shelters at 757.963.5795, Ext. 105
If you need help, call the van outreach 24-hour hotline at 757.498.4357 or call the National Runaway Switchboard at 1.800.RUNAWAY (1.800.786.2929).