Programs aim to help at-risk youth in North Dakota

October 14, 2019

MINOT, N.D. (AP) — Every year in Minot and Ward County, dozens of teens disappear as runaways. Generally, they return or are found, but organizations that work with youth acknowledge there’s potential danger to young people who take off on their own.

Minot’s runaway numbers dropped to just 74 last year, trailing the five-year average of about 120, said Capt. Justin Sundheim of the Minot Police Department. Through Sept. 19, the department had responded to 71 runaway reports.

In many cases, youth return home on their own within a few days. Reports of runaway youth often are resolved in a few days and, in most cases, within a week, Sundheim said.

Maj. Larry Hubbard, chief deputy with the Ward County Sheriff’s Department, said the county’s experience is similar in that most runaways are found quickly. The county received 27 reports of runaways this year through Oct. 1.

The response when runaways are recovered varies with the situation, Sundheim said. Not all cases require further action. In some instances, Ward County Social Services may be asked to get involved to address a family situation. In other cases, a youth is referred to juvenile court.

“The last thing you want is a child to be in the system, but sometimes that’s the only way to get the message across or to get that child on a path that’s going to be a safe one going forward,” Sundheim told the Minot Daily News.

The primary goal of the court is to link youth with services to get to the root of the behavior, said Scott Hopwood, juvenile court supervisor in the North Central District in Minot.

Youth come to juvenile court only when there is a law enforcement citation, but the court can choose to employ diversion services to keep them out of the traditional process. Sometimes intensive in-home services are the answer, Hopwood said.

“We try to maximize what we have in the community before we look at something at that far end, looking at out-of-home placement,” he said. “The best thing you can do is keep them in their natural community and try to utilize the community resources.”

Dakota Boys & Girls Ranch, Minot, serves troubled youth who may have run away in their past. When running away is the issue, residential services might be part of treatment, but for some, the solution can be therapy visits only or referral to other agencies that can better help, said Christina Hemmer, vice president of clinical services.

“Unfortunately for the parents, there’s a lot of stigma when it’s your child who has run away,” Hemmer said.

Often the assumption is the parents did something wrong. Hemmer said running away can stem from a child’s anxiety over a situation or a moment of rebellion, she said. It could be a youth is hurting due to stress or depression and is too embarrassed about it to face the family, she said.

At other times, a youth may have developed a dangerous relationship, which has become a more common situation with the increase in internet interactions. Mental health issues, substance abuse or domestic violence within the home also can motivate youth to run.

“They might feel safer running away than actually staying put,” said Amber Marquardt, director of residential services at the ranch.

Upon admission at Dakota Boys & Girls Ranch, about 80% of youth are found to have trauma in their pasts. By the time they graduate from the ranch after building relationships with staff that encourage them to share more information, the trauma-affected youth rate is about 95%.

“It’s amazing how much trauma you can sometimes resolve by not psychoanalyzing or diagnosing but just being present for each other as human beings,” Hemmer said. “That’s really where the magic ends up happening, and I see people doing it at the ranch. It’s not about diagnosis. It’s not just about pills. It’s not about services. It’s about being present for each other in our lives.”

In recognizing that a gap occurs when youth leave the ranch or end their therapy visits, the ranch on Oct. 1 started an aftercare program. Upon admission, youth are assigned a family engagement specialist who stays with the family even after discharge for a minimum of six months.

“It’s not going to be a therapist or a case manager. It really is somebody who can just be present for that family,” Hemmer said.

Youthworks is the only service agency in North Dakota with programs specific to runaways. It operates basic shelter programs in Fargo and Bismarck, using the federal funds allotted to North Dakota through the Families and Youth Services Bureau under administration of the Children and Families division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“The basic shelter program is really intended to target youth who run away or are away from home without parental consent or are otherwise homeless,” said Emily Yanish, runaway shelter manager in Bismarck.

Youthworks provides emergency shelter for up to 21 days, although most stays are much shorter, Yanish said. The Bismarck shelter has five beds, and the six-bed Fargo shelter will be expanding to eight.

The shelter program is just one of the programs offered by Youthworks but it specifically targets runaways and can assist youth who self refer or are referred through law enforcement, courts, counselors or social services.

Youthworks’ counselors screen youth for underlying causes of running away as well as any concerns about physical health, substance abuse, anger issues, suicidal tendencies or other mental health issues, Yanish said. They then seek to help place the youths on better paths.

Typically, youth are able to return to a parental home, although there are times when placement with another family member or friend or the involvement of social services is appropriate, Yanish said. Youthworks has placed some teens with Job Corps, which prioritizes admissions for runaway and homeless youth.

Yanish said, most commonly, running away is the result of high-level conflict with parents, so helping families find ways to handle those conflicts is key.

“Teenagers often are very convinced that they have the correct solution to whatever problem they might be facing, and a lot of time, they are not off-base,” she said. “One of Youthworks’ principles is positive youth development. Our counselors really look at the youths’ strengths, the positive choices they are making, really involve them in the decision-making and planning.”

One of North Dakota’s gaps in services is the limited access to shelters, with only two in the state, Yanish said. There’s also a need for more counselors with expertise in working with adolescents, she said.

Youthworks is working with Ward County to establish management of an attendant care program to enable a program to continue in the county. However, attendant care provides only a bed for 48 hours for youth who come through law enforcement.

What’s important for youth to know it that help exists, Yanish said. Runaway teens who find themselves with nowhere to go can call a national hotline at 1-800-RUNAWAY and be connected to a representative of the closest service agency, who can help them problem solve and find a secure place to stay.

Dean Sturn, foster care administrator with the Department of Human Services, said there are efforts at the local level in communities around the state to address and prevent youth runaways. Those efforts include providing struggling youth with opportunities to talk with a teacher, pastor, parent or other adult and posting national or local runaway hotline numbers in the schools.

Children in foster care are at greater risk of running away because of the trauma and the experiences that led to their placement, Sturn said. Preventing a foster child from running away is no different than prevention generally, he said. It involves being proactive.

“It’s talking with your children. It’s making sure the child has a trusted adult that they can go and talk to when there are difficulties,” Sturn said.

A youth who runs away from foster care always is reported and entered into the national law enforcement and missing child databases, and biological parents or legal custodian are notified. Once youth return or are found, they are screened as required by federal law for any evidence of having been trafficked.

Diana Weber, well-being administrator at the Department of Human Services, said the department doesn’t provide services specific to runaways, but the services it does offer can benefit youth and families going through the kinds of struggles that might prompt a child to run away. Human service centers offer both individual and family therapy. Some youth with emotional disturbances also could qualify for care coordination through the Partnerships Program.


Information from: Minot Daily News, http://www.minotdailynews.com