Bipartisan bill is critical to caring for youth and families in crisis

Feb 27, 2015

In late January, the Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act (S.262) was reintroduced in the Senate to reauthorize the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA), which expired in 2013. The first attempt to reauthorize RHYA failed last July. RHYA is the main federal safeguard for more than 1.7 million children nationwide—by the most recent estimate—who run away from home, are neglected and forced to leave their homes, are subjected to human trafficking, or exit the child welfare or juvenile justice system without a support system. Many of these children, however, are not considered eligible for critical services due to the limited definition of “human trafficking” under RHYA’s current stipulation. The proposed bill would expand that eligibility to include youth facing labor exploitation, in addition to those facing sex trafficking who are already eligible. It would also reauthorize federal funding for three community-based programs that connect youth to vital services through street outreach, provide temporary housing with crisis intervention and family counseling, and offer longer-term transitional housing with access to healthcare, education, and job training.   Here are some important highlights from the proposed bill:

  • It proposes examining the intersection between runaway and trafficked youth and the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
  • It calls for the provision of “trauma-informed and gender-responsive services,” including mental, physical, and behavioral health services, suicide prevention, and aftercare.
  • It extends coverage of services and intervention programs, where necessary, to youth’s parents or legal guardians and even unrelated individuals whom the youth considers family.
  • It prevents the denial of services to youth on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability. This clause is being lauded by LGBTQ youth advocates as significant for ensuring provision of services to LGBTQ youth who form an estimated 40 percent of the homeless youth population.
  • It maintains federal funding for a national call center to connect youth, families, and service providers, as well as for the national Runaway and Homeless Youth Training and Technical Assistance Center to provide on-site and online training and technical assistance for service providers.
  • It improves data collection and performance monitoring by mandating service providers and programs to collect and report data to a national study on homeless youth. It also establishes federal grants for counties and private and public service providers to conduct research and demonstration projects.

Both chambers of Congress have seen similar legislative action of late. On January 27, 2015, the same day as S.262 was reintroduced, the Homeless Children and Youth Act was reintroduced in the Senate. It aims to extend coverage of federal homeless assistance programs to children living with traffickers or in other vulnerable situations. Just a day earlier, the House of Representatives passed the Enhancing Services for Runaway and Homeless Victims of Youth Trafficking Act of 2015, which calls for some of the updates proposed in S.262. Earlier this month, the president’s proposed budget for the 2016 fiscal year included increased funding for RHYA for the first time in his six years in office.   Despite this national attention on providing support and services to runaway youth, 39 states still consider running away a status offense and use punitive measures such as court referral and out-of-home placement as responses. Vera’s Status Offense Reform Center provides practitioners and policymakers with a toolkit to help communities transform their response to status offenses from a juvenile justice orientation to one that is community based. Vera’s research brief on running away explains why this issue is so important. Given the promising legislative environment in which it has been reintroduced, Vera believes that S.262’s holistic approach of providing trauma-informed services for runaway, homeless, and trafficked children and their families is a critical step in the process of responsibly caring for youth and families in crisis across the nation.  

Maliha Ali is a former intern for Vera's Status Offense Reform Center. She is currently a senior at Bennington College where she is pursuing a bachelor's degree in liberal arts with a concentration in public policy and international relations.