One teen lost track of time while playing basketball. Another didn’t come home until after three in the morning. And for the second time in two weeks, a 12-year-old girl ran away from home.
Altogether, eight youths were reported missing over a recent 24-hour period in the District. Each young person returned home within a day, and their cases were closed by D.C. police.
In the past, the city’s attention would end there. But under a new program — launched six months after the District received national attention for its missing youth — juveniles could receive up to six months of support services after they return home.
Officials say the program, funded by the Department of Human Services, will address a problem that underlies the vast majority of the city’s juvenile missing persons cases: Hundreds of the District’s young people run away from home each month, and for many, it’s not the first time.
From January to July of this year, D.C. police received more than 1,300 juvenile missing person reports. That figure includes youths who were reported missing multiple times, police said.
The new program, called Strengthening Teens Enriching Parents (STEP), began in September and will focus on helping families once those children or teens are back home. By preventing future runaways, program officials say they hope to keep the District’s young people out of potentially dangerous situations on the city’s streets.
Families who choose to participate in the voluntary program will be provided with resources, including counseling, to resolve whatever issues are compelling the youths to leave home in the first place, officials said. People who work with runaways said they have seen financial stress, mental health issues, complicated family dynamics and other concerns play a role.
“There’s things that lead up to this point, and that’s what we need to focus our attention on,” said Michelle Caron, captain of the D.C. police’s Youth and Family Services Division, which handles juvenile missing person cases.
In the District, parents don’t have to wait a certain length of time to report their child missing. They can call 911 immediately.
Most cases are closed within 24 hours, Caron said. When the D.C. police department began posting photos of missing youths to its social media accounts in March, its goal was to solicit the public’s help in ensuring youths are located quickly and safely, she said.
Instead, many interpreted the posts as modern-day milk cartons, each documenting the face of an abducted child.
Though, according to police, the posts didn’t signify an uptick in missing youth, the public outcry that followed led Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to pledge more resources toward the city’s missing youth.
Caron, whose department has since received five additional officers, said the attention has allowed those who work with the city’s most vulnerable youth to “get through some bureaucracy” and coordinate their efforts.
As a part of the new program, officials from multiple city agencies, including the Department of Human Services, the Department of Behavioral Health and the Child and Family Services Agency, participate in daily conference calls with the police department. During the calls, officials discuss youths recently reported missing and arrange plans to support the affected families moving forward.
From the phone calls, STEP program staff maintain a database of all the city’s missing youths, even after they’ve been found. That data will enable the program to target those with repeat incidents for more intensive interventions, said Hilary Cairns, deputy administrator for youth programs at the Family Services Administration in the Department of Human Services
Program staff, including licensed counselors and social workers, provide services at youths’ homes and pay regular visits to their schools. For each family, the program lasts for 90 days, with up to 90 days of follow-up support, Cairns said. The services can include linking families with mental health or substance abuse services or working with schools on issues, including truancy or behavioral problems.
Sherri Watkins said she has seen how that kind of support can help. In May, her 13-year-old daughter ran away from their Southeast D.C. home for the third time since the beginning of the year.
“My child’s picture was on TV. My child’s picture was on social media. I couldn’t believe that it was happening to me,” Watkins said.
After D.C. police found the girl, the city offered more help.
In the past, Watkins said she had struggled to find effective mental-health care for her daughter, who has had behavioral issues since she was a toddler. With the support of the Department of Human Services, which connected the family to mental-health professionals, Watkins said her daughter was diagnosed with a behavioral disorder. She now takes medication and has a formal support plan at school. At home, a mentor from the department visits her twice per week.
Since the support began, Watkins said, her daughter hasn’t run away again.
STEP program officials say they will provide more families with similar help.
As a part of the program, the city is partnering with Sasha Bruce House, the District’s only short-term shelter for homeless youth, to provide emergency housing for teens in crisis, officials said. Youths between the ages of 13 and 17 with tense home situations can find respite at the shelter in Northeast, with a parent’s permission, for up to three weeks, according to Sheila Clark, chief of programs for Sasha Bruce Youthwork, the nonprofit that runs the shelter.
Though teens are given free time and space to decompress from the anxieties of adolescence, the house’s 24-hour staff will enforce a structured routine, Clark said. Teens will participate in both individual and family counseling while at the shelter to “unpack what is underneath all the conflict,” she said.
To ease stress at home, the program will also provide families with opportunities for bonding, which they otherwise may not be able to afford, such as free tickets to local sporting events, Clark said.
On a recent afternoon, sunlight streamed into the third floor of the shelter, where five twin beds have been added for teens participating in the STEP program.
A small suitcase was parked next to a wooden dresser, and a hot-pink hair tie was strewn on the fireplace mantle — subtle signs of the shelter’s first program participant.
Before the STEP program, “kids basically had to scream to get someone to pay attention,” Clark said. “But now we’ve created a mechanism where we hear that first cry and we do something about it.”