On Their Own, Still Safe
Things were going so well: A young woman who had recently left the transitional living program run by Youth Focus in High Point, NC, had just secured an apartment and a new job. She was making a life for herself that would have been inconceivable just a short while earlier, when she was homeless.
But her boyfriend was pressuring her. He moved in, borrowed money from her instead of getting his own job, and invited people over who brought drugs.
Because program director Karen Bridges and other Youth Focus staff regularly checked in with the young woman, they knew what was going on and could discreetly step in. To keep the young woman safe from old risks, they emphasized her new positive opportunities.
After steady, nonjudgmental discussions with Bridges about the importance of focusing on her own well-being and seeking out positive relationships to help her achieve her goals, the young woman decided to break up with her boyfriend.
On their own, youth who’ve recently left residential programs risk falling back in with abusive family members, violent communities or old friends who aren’t aware of their new lifestyles. They also risk forgetting the lessons they learned in life skills classes, focused on helping them lead safe, structured, independent lives. They still need someone there to help them navigate independence, and personalized, and attentive aftercare programs like the one at Youth Focus and other youth-serving agencies can serve as safety nets and prevent them from returning to dangerous old patterns and habits.
“They may have sat in the classes or passed the test,” explains Katie Kitchin, executive director of Memphis’s Community Alliance for the Homeless, “but when they actually go back into situations of stress they fall into old patterns.” An effective program, she explains, “provides the supports to you when you’re back in your natural environment. You’re much more likely to retain those lessons over time this way.”
Setting Youth Up for Safety and Success
The first step to keeping youth safe through aftercare is planning. At Youth Focus, Bridges and her colleagues help their clients create an individualized safety plan.
Before young people begin life on their own, Bridges sits down with them to make a list of possible dangers or troubles they might encounter--anything from being late on a rent payment to having a violent person show up at their apartment. Then she makes sure the youth has a protocol and number to call for every situation.
The next step is keeping in touch regularly.
Kitchin says that her organization schedules drop-in visits at the youths’ convenience, 30, 60 and 90 days after a youth leaves the program. Home visits mean the young people don’t have to travel or go out of their way to see a counselor, and it gives the counselors an intimate view of a client’s lifestyle. Kitchin addresses problems as they arise, the better to let young people take the lead in their own recovery process.
Kitchin remembers one client who, by the look and smell of things, had obviously used marijuana right before a visit. The young person’s indiscretion prompted a serious discussion of the risks of drug use, rather than a lecture about what the client should or should not do.
“Since we’re not there to take anybody’s housing away or instill a penalty, we can have a conversation about substance abuse or other problems with more trust,” Kitchin says. “They really feel they’re being listened to, and we respond to that problem through counseling and therapy.”
A New Job and New Friends
Even with support, youth may feel lonely starting anew. They may reach out to the wrong people for help, or give a hand to someone undeserving. Bridges has done her job long enough to know that young people typically don’t respond well to recriminations to stay away from bad people—especially when those people are friends they’ve had for years. Instead, as in the case of the client with the bulldozing boyfriend, she works with newly independent clients to help identify their own best interests and steer clear of negative influences from their earlier, more dangerous lifestyles.
“Particularly if they’ve had some negative relationships with boyfriends,” Bridges says, “it’s our job to help them become empowered. We talk with them about their relationships and encourage them to be more thoughtful of the ones they begin in the future. We want them to see what they do for themselves.”
Scott Kennelly, assistant director of clinical services for the Butte County Behavioral Health Program in California, says that in addition to feeling empowered, young people need healthy alternatives if they are to avoid heading right from a residential program back to an unsafe home or community.
For example, with money in their pockets, young people are less likely to rely on old acquaintances for food or a bed, he says. So, through a program called Paybucks, Butte County pays employers to hire young people who leave state shelters.
“We ask them to give the young people some shifts, train them, and we’ll pay their wages,” he says.
Since many of his clients have gangs and drug users in their old social networks, Kennelly’s team also offers positive activities, many held in schools or outdoors, to help them build new friendships.
“We want to make it easy to avoid old haunts,” Kennelly says. “We focus on helping them stay clean and sober and connect with positive peers.”
This article was originally published by the National Clearinghouse on Children and Families. It is reprinted here with permission.