Every year more youth leave home for the streets. How many is not certain; they are a critically understudied population. One study by Portland State University gives a figure of 1.6 million homeless youth in the nation. A little over a million of them are between 15 and 17 years old.
Homeless youth need a safe place to live. Life on the streets is very painful and sometimes deadly. Homeless youth are highly overlooked by people ranging from service providers to legislators, and for that matter, the foster care system. And when families fall apart, older youth often have no place to go but the streets. The Mockingbird Network (Region 1 – Spokane, Washington) hopes to change that by reforming the Washington State Child in Need of Services (CHINS) petition to be better suited to help older runaway youth.
The CHINS petition itself is a temporary request for services where the court will decide whether or not a youth receives services. This can include housing, food vouchers, educational services, counseling and others. Just filing a CHINS petition is not enough, the policy, and ultimately the judge decide on whether they are provided And, as of right now there is no legal policy on how to handle homeless youth filing a CHINS petition.
Region 1 heard about a youth who was looking to get into foster care and who had been denied more than once. Region 1 investigated further and decided to bring the idea of reforming the Washington State CHINS petition to the Mockingbird Society’s 2010 Foster Youth and Alumni Leadership Summit. The hope is that community leaders and Legislators will see the wisdom of supporting homeless youth and back a change in the policy.
The problem is there is no way for homeless youth to really enter foster care. When a child typically enters care it usually involves an investigation by CPS and a dependency hearing with a judge. These cases tend to focus on younger children, and there is minimal assistance for older youth. But every family is different, and what the child welfare system still hasn’t prepared for is the outcomes that leave an older youth on the streets and the parents or guardians have decided to exclude that youth from their life. Where do CPS and dependency hearings come into play by that point?
Runaway youth and homeless youth are a vastly understudied population. They should be as supported by the child welfare system, as foster youth. A wise man once said “the success of a nation is dependent on those who depend on the nation.” In other words, our nation’s success depends on how we treat our poor and neglected populations. And when a population like homeless youth is ignored; what does that say about our community or our child welfare system? Homeless youth have to rely on homeless youth drop-in centers which are nonprofit organizations dependent on private donors. And, given that policy that the police must be notified when at youth is at one of these resource centers or shelters, most youth continue to run.
By revising the CHINS petition, or finding a better system of getting runaway youth and homeless youth the care they need to have any kind of life at all, we can get many youth off the streets and with a higher chance of success at life.