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Maureen Blaha

Maureen Blaha, the National Runaway Safeline’s Executive director

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Since running from foster placement and losing touch with caring adults who could provide support, 14-year old Anya turned to drugs and traded sex for shelter or money to survive.  One day, in her attempt to obtain help, Anya hitched a ride with a couple to get to a nearby shelter, but they drove past the exit. She was in the back of a van with complete strangers. The doors locked. She had no idea where she was heading. They refused to tell her where they were going.

Despite her dire circumstances, Anya was able to call 1-800-RUNAWAY and reached the National Runaway Safeline (NRS), the organization I lead with major support from the Administration for Children & Families’ Family & Youth Services Bureau (FYSB).

A trained and experienced Safeline team member kept Anya calm, asking her to describe landmarks along the desolate stretch of desert highway the van was traveling on. A second team member used Google Maps to try to find Anya’s location. A third person, with permission, alerted local authorities.

In the end, Anya was located in a trailer park outside Tucson, Arizona. Once safe, and out of harm’s way, she was connected with social services. Anya did have a warrant out for her arrest for prostitution, but law enforcement ultimately recognized her as a victim of human trafficking, and she was provided the support and services she needed.

National Communication System

In the 14 years I have worked with homeless and runaway youth as NRS’s executive director, I have learned to admire their exceptional resilience and to see our role as helping them tap into their strengths.

In that capacity, we help young people like Anya get out of crises every day. Funded by the Family and Youth Services Bureau to serve as the federally designated national communication system authorized by the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, we’ve been here 24 hours a day for 40 years.

Sometimes young people call NRS just to talk. They are overwhelmed at home, being bullied at school, having difficulty dealing with change. They just want a friendly ear and a few options.

Sometimes youth need a strong advocate. They need someone who can work on their behalf, navigating the system so they get the help they need. Other times, they need resources. They have been living on the street, sleeping in a car, trading sex for shelter and they just want safety, security, and an opportunity to be free from harm.

“Piecing It All Together”

Every young person deserves safety and security. Last month, during our annual National Runaway Prevention Month we focused on a theme that underpins our work year-round: “Piecing it all together.”

For us, the theme refers to three interrelated ideas. First is the overlap between various at-risk and underserved youth populations. While many people tend to think of various youth populations as separate, the fact is that issues such as foster care, substance abuse, human trafficking, juvenile justice, and child abuse are often interconnected. As the call with Anya illustrates, one case can touch upon each of these issues, but without a whole picture, we are challenged in finding an effective solution.

Second, we are emphasizing the role NRS plays in “piecing it all together” as America’s go-to resource for runaway and homeless youth, with an extensive database of local and national programs, including agencies funded by FYSB’s Runaway and Homeless Youth Programs. We not only piece together the different services available — everything from shelter to counseling — across the United States, but also gather data to identify trends in youth running away and youth homelessness.

Third, we are promoting our crisis-intervention model, which enables us to “piece together” the different aspects of a youth’s life in a nonjudgmental, nondirective, and nondenominational manner. By getting a complete picture of what a young person is going through and what they need, we can support them in developing a plan that is best for them.

When a youth runs away, the impact is felt throughout the entire community. I encourage everyone — individuals, businesses, community groups, teachers, elected officials, and human service agencies — to reach out to young people whenever and however they can. For our part, we’re honored to work with FYSB to identify resources and help youth develop life skills that can make the difference between running away and finding support.

For more information email outreach@1800RUNAWAY.org.

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