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September 2012: Runaway and Homeless Youth and Child Exploitation

Runaway and Homeless Youth and Child Exploitation

This month’s Missing and Exploited Children Program’s (MECP) newsletter focuses on runaway and homeless youth (RHY) and child exploitation. Our contributing authors explore the connection between RHY and commercial sexual exploitation (CSE), and spotlight three programs that specialize in helping young victims work out their family problems and return home.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness understands all too well the hazards of life on the streets. They maintain that the relationship between youth homelessness and CSE begins as soon as a young person leaves home. Author Antonia Childs left “the lifestyle” back in 2008 to open a bakery. Now she uses her first-hand knowledge about child sexual exploitation to help other young women and girls in similar circumstances with counseling, housing referrals and mentoring. She has teamed up with two other organizations — The Relatives and National Safe Place — to strengthen her outreach in providing services to this population.

The National Runaway Switchboard can help you raise public awareness about these issues in your community during November’s National Runaway Prevention Month. Their goal — in addition to providing young people with free, confidential, nonjudgmental, solution-focused crisis intervention — is to present families with viable alternatives that can defuse volatile emotions and keep young people at home to work out problems in constructive ways.

Finally, listen in to September’s monthly webinar, Finding Services for Runaway and Homeless Victims of Human Trafficking, which features TC Cassidy, program supervisor of the University of Oklahoma’s Runaway and Homeless Youth Training and Technical Assistance Center. Ms. Cassidy offers a wealth of information and advice on the prevention and treatment programs available to serve the RHY population.

We hope you find this issue of the newsletter informative and insightful. As always, you can find more information about MECP and view previous newsletters at our website, www.mecptraining.org.


Preventing the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children and Youth

Provided by the National Alliance to End Homelessness

Although current data on the extent of youth homelessness are limited, previous studies have estimated that approximately 1.7 million youth under the age of 18 have run away or are homeless in the United States each year.1 Several factors contribute to young people leaving home. One of the primary factors is intense family conflict, which can take the form of physical abuse, sexual abuse, or non-acceptance of a youth’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity.2

When young people are out of the home unaccompanied and trying to navigate life on the streets, they become susceptible to many horrors, including commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) and trafficking. Estimates are that some 2.2 percent of children under the age of 18 who have a runaway or homeless episode — approximately 39,000 children annually — are sexually assaulted or become victims of CSE.3

The relationship between youth homelessness and CSE and/or trafficking arguably begins as soon as a youth leaves home.4 The Dallas Police Department has found that the more times a youth runs away from home, the more likely that youth is to be victimized.5 Unaccompanied youth living on the street are particularly vulnerable to such victimization because they are not in a position to meet their immediate needs for food, shelter and safety. This makes them a target for people who may exploit them. A study of shelter and street youth indicated that approximately 28 percent of street youth and 10 percent of youth in shelters reported trading sex (called survival sex) to meet their basic needs.6

Oftentimes the discussion about sexual exploitation among homeless youth overlooks males, who are also at risk for CSE. Many of those who are exploited and recruited for trafficking self-identify as gay or bisexual. Although the dynamics of providing services and shelter to young men is different (including the response by the justice system), more gender inclusive policies must be developed to effectively house, treat and protect male survivors. Nationally, fewer than 100 beds are designed specifically to meet the needs of survivors of exploitation.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness believes that minimizing the time youth and young adults are homeless can reduce their risk of sexual exploitation. Communities can implement a number of strategies to achieve this goal. First, we can ensure that youth exiting the foster care and/or juvenile justice system are not discharged into homelessness. Thoughtful strategic planning can prevent that outcome. Second, we must improve our crisis response to runaway youth and youth on the street to help move them quickly into safety and out of harm’s way. Third, we can implement family intervention strategies that will help prevent youth from running away in the first place and help those who have run away to return home when it is safe to do so. Finally, we must increase investments in housing for youth who are unable to return home. All of our programs and services need to recognize the special needs of survivors of CSE and trafficking.

For more information on runaway and homeless youth and commercial sex exploitation, as well as on the work of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, please visit us at www.naeh.org.


Neet’s Sweets

By Antonia M. Childs

About the Author

Antonia M. Childs is Executive Director of Neet’s Sweets, Inc., a survivor-based organization that assists young women who have been victimized by commercial sexual exploitation and domestic sex trafficking. The mission of the organization is to encourage and support survivors of commercial sexual exploitation and domestic sex trafficking by providing resources and services that enable them to overcome their past and transform their future. The organization offers counseling, housing referrals and mentoring to young ladies to help them get back on the right track, while teaching the importance of philanthropy through a “Market your mind, not your body” campaign.

In 2008, Ms. Childs she became a baking entrepreneur in Charlotte, N.C., where she expanded her small business into a larger movement, becoming an advocate for other young ladies struggling to leave the lifestyle. Beyond the pride Ms. Childs takes in the quality of her products and services, she is mindful of the symbolism each cake holds: a physical manifestation of both her personal recovery and her ambition to build awareness about commercial sexual exploitation and prevent other at-risk youth from dropping into the shadows of the dark world she was able to escape.

Neet’s Sweets

Youth experience many difficult situations — problems at home, problems at school, trouble with friends, getting locked out of the house, riding with an unsafe driver, getting caught in a dangerous situation with a date.

Sadly, youth leave home to escape abuse and neglect, drug and alcohol abuse by family and friends. Some youth feel they do not belong, and leaving home is a choice they would prefer not to make. Some youth are told to leave. Experts estimate that each year in the United States between 1.6 and 2.8 million youth run away from home; 200,000 to 300,000 of them are at risk of being trafficked. The average age of entry into prostitution is 12.

Neet’s Sweets allows me to meet many of these young people. Recently I spoke to a 16-year-old young lady whose single mom was unemployed due to a physical disability. This young lady was the oldest of three and naturally felt an obligation to help provide for the family. At the time, however, she was too young to get a job. So she shared her concerns with an older family member on the assumption that this person would be a safe refuge and could offer sound advice. In fact, the man gave her the impression he could be trusted, but he took the opportunity instead to manipulate her into believing that performing sexual favors for him would be the answer to her problems. The young girl began to have sexual relations with him and he then began to exploit and sell her to other gentlemen. She was told that if she did not cooperate, he would stop the financial support and no one else would be willing to help her.

The shame she felt as a result of the looks he gave her at family gatherings eventually caused her to run away. Now homeless and with no plan, she was an easy target for a pimp who regularly preyed on young homeless girls at the bus terminal. The pimp brought the girl home, fed her, and after a week of gaining her trust, he beat her and forced her into prostitution. It was through Neet’s Sweets and our prison outreach that I met this young lady — two years after becoming homeless and exploited. This story is not unlike many others, and it is what inspired me to join forces with The Relatives and National Safe Place.

The Relatives

The Relatives is an agency that helps young adults and their families when they need it most. For years known primarily as a youth shelter, The Relatives has been expanding its services to keep kids safe and families together.

Since 1974, The Relatives crisis shelter has provided a safe location for youth ages 7 to 17 who have run away from home, are homeless, or are just going through a rough patch with their family and have nowhere else to turn. Youth can stay for up to 14 days, knowing they have a safe place where they can work on issues with their families.

The Relatives is proud to serve as the hub for National Safe Place in Mecklenburg County, N.C.

National Safe Place

National Safe Place is a national youth outreach program that educates thousands of young people every year about the dangers of running away and of trying to resolve difficult, threatening situations on their own. The program provides safe havens and resources for youth in crisis by involving the entire community in a network of National Safe Place–affiliated locations — schools, libraries, fire stations, grocery and convenience stores, public transit facilities, YMCAs and other public buildings — all of which display the yellow and black diamond-shaped National Safe Place sign. These locations extend the doors of the youth service agency and emergency shelter to the larger community, which allows youth to easily access immediate help wherever they are.

How National Safe Place Works

When a young person needs assistance, any location with a National Safe Place sign can be counted on to provide help:

Step 1. The youth arrives at a designated National Safe Place location (identified by a National Safe Place sign or decal) and tells the first available employee that they need help.

Step 2. The employee finds a quiet, comfortable room for the youth to wait while a call is made to the local National Safe Place agency.

Step 3. The local National Safe Place agency calls the location back with the name of a trained volunteer who will come to the location to meet the young person.

Step 4. Within 20 to 30 minutes, the National Safe Place volunteer or staff member arrives to talk with the youth and transport them to the local agency for counseling, support, a place to stay and other resources.

Step 5. Once at the local National Safe Place agency, counselors meet with the youth and provide help, support and other resources. Family members or guardians are called to let them know that their child is safe. Agency staff makes sure the youth and their families receive the help and professional referrals they need.

Most young people hear about National Safe Place during school presentations. Each student is given a National Safe Place information card with the local National Safe Place phone number. Teens also hear about the program through word of mouth, social media, and public service announcements on radio and TV. Program materials stress that all National Safe Place services are free and confidential.

Learn More

To learn more about Neet’s Sweets, Inc., please contact:

Antonia Childs, founder, [email protected]

Brian Gunter, cofounder, [email protected]


To learn more about The Relatives, please contact:

Curtis Joe, program manager, [email protected]



To learn more about National Safe Place, please contact:

Brittany Beyers-Davis, National Safe Place coordinator, [email protected]

Callie Richey, volunteer National Safe Place coordinator, [email protected]




Numbers Tell the Story With the National Runaway Switchboard

Provided by the National Runaway Switchboard

Between 1.6 and 2.8 million youth run away from home every year. Those looking from the outside in might imagine a runaway as a youth trying to escape a poverty-stricken household or a defiant youth who blatantly disobeys the rules of the home. Contrary to this belief, there is no typical runaway.

To dispel such myths, this November the National Runaway Switchboard (NRS), in collaboration with 16 prominent national organizations, will spearhead the 11th annual National Runaway Prevention Month campaign, Numbers Tell the Story. The goals of this public awareness campaign are twofold: (1) to raise awareness about the issues runaway and homeless youth face, and (2) to educate the public about solutions to prevent youth from running away from home.

Throughout the month, communities across the country will participate in prevention and education activities designed to build awareness about local and national resources that are available to support youth and families in crisis. A variety of educational activities and publicity strategies are described in the Community Action Kit, a step-by-step digital planning guide that can be used by parents, teachers, coaches, police officers, nonprofit and government agencies, and others who are concerned about runaway youth. The kit details tips for engaging the media, and lists free educational and promotional materials that can be ordered for distribution to youth and families in the community. Finally, NRS is sponsoring the third annual National Runaway Prevention Month Community Contest to further encourage communities across the country to participate in this nationwide campaign.

NRS encourages you to get involved and to help raise awareness in your community by participating in one of the following activities:

  • On November 1, participate in Social Media Day of Action. Use NRS research and statistics to start a conversation about runaway and homeless youth in your community.
  • Select a day in November as Green Sock Day for you and a group of friends, family or employees to wear green socks. Then take a picture and tweet and tag @1800RUNAWAY on Facebook and/or Twitter.
  • Join NRS’s Street Team and distribute outreach materials in your community. You can earn points for cool prizes in return.

For additional information on NRS’s programs and services, visit us at www.1800RUNAWAY.org. Download the Community Action Kit and order free educational and promotional materials by visiting http://www.1800RUNAWAY.org/national-runaway-prevention-month/.


About the National Runaway Switchboard

First established in Chicago in 1971, the National Runaway Switchboard was soon designated by the federal government as the national communication system for providing help for youth in need. Now, with the support of more than 150 volunteers, NRS handles an average of 100,000 calls every year — more than 3 million calls since the organization’s inception. Through hotline and online services available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, NRS provides nonsectarian, nonjudgmental, solution-focused crisis intervention, including referrals to local resources and to education and prevention services for youth, families and community members throughout the country. More than 14,000 youth have been reunited with their families through the NRS Home Free program, a collaborative initiative with Greyhound Lines, Inc. The phone number for NRS’s free, confidential crisis hotline is 1-800-RUNAWAY.


Finding Services for Runaway and Homeless Victims of Human Trafficking Webinar

This month’s MECP webinar, Finding Services for Runaway and Homeless Victims of Human Trafficking, highlighted the connection between runaway and homeless youth and child exploitation. TC Cassidy, of the University of Oklahoma’s Runaway and Homeless Youth Training and Technical Assistance Center, discussed the special needs of runaway and homeless youth (RHY) as well as some of the issues and challenges involved in serving this population. Ms. Cassidy also identified RHY programs funded by the Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) and described how these community agencies are addressing the special needs of homeless youth, including victim-survivors of trafficking; how to locate an FYSB-funded runaway and homeless youth program in your area; what services each of the FYSB-funded RHY program types provides; and who is eligible to receive services through an FYSB-funded RHY program.

To hear the recording of this webinar and view the speaker’s PowerPoint presentation, please click here.


Request Training and Technical Assistance from MECP

OJJDP’s Missing and Exploited Children’s Program offers training and technical assistance tailored to meet the specific needs of local, state and tribal law enforcement, nonprofit organizations and other juvenile justice practitioners. If you are interested in learning how your agency or organization can receive training and technical assistance on this month’s topic, runaway and homeless youth and child exploitation, please contact MECP.

For information on training and technical assistance opportunities on missing and exploited children’s issues, contact MECP at 1-888-347-5610 or [email protected]. To submit a request for training and technical assistance, please complete a training and technical assistance form.


Upcoming Events

Missing Children’s Day Poster Contest

Every year, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency conducts a national poster contest for fifth graders to bring greater awareness to the issue of missing children. The poster contest is designed to increase awareness about the danger of abduction among children while providing an opportunity for organizations to engage children and their parents in informative discussions on safety and prevention.

For more information about the contest and how you can become involved, please visit the poster contest resource page, or contact MECP at 1-888-347-5610 or [email protected]

MECP’s Third Wednesdays @ 2:00 P.M. Webinar Series

Please stay tuned for our next MECP monthly webinar. For more information about the event and registration, please visit here.



1. Hammer, H., D. Finkelhor, and A. Sedlak, National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children: Runaway/Thrownaway Children: National Estimates and Characteristics (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2002).

2. The experiences of abuse and neglect among youth who end up in the foster care system are very similar to the experiences of youth who have left home and are homeless.

3. Finklea, K., A. Fernandes-Alcantara, and A. Siskin, Sex Trafficking of Children in the United States: Overview and Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2011).

4. Some young people suffer from commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking while they are living at home, sometimes at the hands of family members, which may lead to a young person leaving home. The focus of this article, however, is limited to youth who experience exploitation outside of the home.

5. Smith, L., S. Vardaman, and M. Snow, The National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: America’s Prostituted Children (Vancouver, WA: Shared Hope International, 2009), p. 34.

6. Greene, J., S. Ennett, and C. Ringwalt, Prevalence and Correlates of Survival Sex Among Runaway and Homeless Youth, American Journal of Public Health 89(9)(1999): 1406.

This program is supported through grant #D010-MC-CX-K058 from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Neither the U.S. Department of Justice nor any of its components, operate, control, are responsible for, or necessarily endorses, this Web site (including, without limitation, its content, technical infrastructure, and policies, and any services or tools provided). Points of view or opinions in content on this website are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.