I, the Runaway Child

By Kayla Moon

As I walked the familiar halls of the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission’s Youth Sanctuary Shelter, fragments of memories rushed through my mind. Hazy flashbacks of the blue bedroom where I had slept a restless night, walking outside along the old brick building and sitting in the gated courtyard. The cement tables rocking back and forth and benches wobbling from age.

I was a runaway youth, and when I found out that November was National Runaway Awareness month, I had to retrace my steps, but from a different lens. A lens of an investigative journalist trying to find commonality with at-risk youth who are in the depths of the struggle, my own story, and the role of this resource in our lives.

Whatever the cause for youth taking to the streets is, there is a much darker and more unknown element to runaways’ stories. One that lies in the realm of human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

Whatever the cause for youth taking to the streets is, there is a much darker and more unknown element to runaways’ stories. One that lies in the realm of human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

In revisiting the sanctuary, I wanted to know exactly what the Economic Opportunities Commission (EOC) was doing in regard to prevention in this matter. While conducting my interview at the shelter, I spoke with Amber, who is the outreach coordinator for the human trafficking project.

I asked if she felt a lot of runaway youth experience human trafficking? She stated that her program stemmed from clients coming to them, sharing similar stories of being trafficked and having to engage in survival sex to have their basic needs met.

Her program started in 2009, the year I graduated from high school. By that point, I had lost contact with the EOC and continued on a long road of dysfunctional and unhealthy environments, normalized during my time as a runaway.

My story as to how I arrived at the shelter: I was staying at an abandoned house with two other people. We had been drinking and one was a homeless adult male. The police had been called because a neighbor saw someone in the house. When the officers arrived the adult male hid in the basement, but he was found by their K9 unit.

The police searched my name, and I came up as a runaway youth. I remember the officer asking if I felt safe to go home and I said no. The adult male was let go, the girl I was with was sent home and I was taken to the shelter.

I have no memory of being encouraged or even suggested that I should file a police report. No one told me that this wasn’t normal or that what I was doing was illegal.

In revisiting these memories, I wanted to know exactly how the EOC and its human trafficking project were addressing these issues. I asked follow-up questions of Misty, the sanctuary director.

How does the EOC assesses if a child has been a victim of a human trafficking crime? The “CVAHT [Central Valley Against Human Trafficking] staff conducts human trafficking assessments for both adults and minors,” says Misty. “Staff is trained to use a variety of lenses to perform assessments.”

I asked if the director could describe the role of case management. “Case managers fill a vital role in the recovery process for victims of trafficking,” said Misty. “The case manager works to help clients create goals and reach those goals. These can be anything from safety planning, legal services, housing, employment, benefits, education, family reunification.”

I, too, remember a case manager doing an intake assessment, but I couldn’t remember if there were direct questions and solutions in regard to my situation. In my case, I was reunited with my family.

During my in-person interview at the shelter I asked Tanya, the shelter’s coordinator for sanctuary, where clients typically transition to after their time at the sanctuary? She stated that clients typically are reunified with their families; my story again appears to be a collective experience.

Although reunification happened with my family, there was no proper follow-through or long-term care. No case manager or staff member ever followed up on me and, in my opinion, this was a huge loss and continued the cycle of abuse for years up until adulthood. For me, reunification amounted to little; within a matter of days I was back on the streets.

My behaviors that grew from a state of survival included habitual moving, exploitative acts, drug use, risk-taking, interactions with law enforcement and illegal activity that continued until I became pregnant as a homeless woman in a domestic violence relationship at age 24. Although this experience might sound tragic, the real tragedy is that I’m a part of the minority that makes it out.

I was curious about how the EOC was working to educate their clients, maybe there were more elements of prevention, so I asked the director if they educate clients on the risks of human trafficking? The “CVAHT staff work on utilizing a harm reduction model in case management and advocacy,” says Misty.

“The intent is to reduce the negative consequences of certain behaviors or situations. This, along with the empowerment model, offers choices to clients who in their trafficking situation oftentimes do not have a choice, but offer alternative choices including but not limited to access to sexual health and safe sex mechanisms, access to safe locations, safe phone numbers and safe people, etc.”

The last comment was discouraging to me because many do not have a choice in engaging in survival sex. My mind went to law enforcement and how they collaborate to catch predators in our community who are exploiting the young.

I asked if the EOC encourages clients to fill out police reports? The director responded that the “CVAHT does not require clients to report to law enforcement in order to receive services. All clients are given the opportunity to report and are provided advocacy through the reporting system.”

I continued to investigate how closely the EOC works with the Fresno Police Department (FPD) in fighting human trafficking in our community. She stated that the “CVAHT works closely alongside [the] Fresno Police Department and has been in partnership since 2009. Both agencies provide cross-referrals and work closely on mutual cases to ensure that survivors have options for justice and access to services.”

I asked if the FPD has been accountable in the follow-through of reports being made? She told me that the “Fresno PD has been highly responsive and accountable on cases of human trafficking referred by [the] Fresno EOC. [The] Fresno PD and the rest of the Fresno County Human Trafficking Taskforce work collaboratively to respond to cases to human trafficking from all angles including the investigation, prosecution and comprehensive services.”

It is reassuring to find so many incredible resources in our community working together to help assist with these issues. Yet, there is always room for growth.

A great way to solve the lack of long-term follow-through is to have a monthly newsletter sent out to clients and families to give updates and continue providing potential resources for families. The EOC’s Sanctuary Youth Shelter has the potential of being a long-term lifeline for those in need.

I hope that the EOC’s youth sanctuary continues its service in our community and that our community members become more aware of the issues faced by runaway youth. It is also my hope that by sharing my story, it gives a more personal and insightful look into the experiences of runaway and exploited youth.

*****

(Author’s note: Last names have been removed due to the sensitive nature of this line of work. Thanks to Christine Howad-Eshmawi for assistance in editing this article. To see a video of the interviews, visit https://youtu.be/gJJWDCcNbtA.)

*****

Kayla Moon is a freelance journalist who focuses on women’s rights, youth advocacy, and environmental and social issues in the Central Valley. Find her work at futureofminds.com, We Are Change, the Conscious Resistance, the Fresno Flyer and Instagram (@futureofminds).

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x