In 1973, the bodies of 27 young boys – aged 13 to 20 – were discovered in the Houston area. Labeled by the media as a massacre, public unrest and outrage rose as details emerged showing that many of these young people were runaways – “hippies” – from middle class families. With no resources or help available to them, they were unprotected and, as a result, were brutalized and lost their lives.
Soon after this tragedy, the 1974 Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (Title III) was passed and 60 runaway youth programs were established across the nation. With a shared passion for serving runaways and acquiring federal funding to assist them, six directors of Florida youth programs formed an alliance 40 years ago this past July, and the Florida Network of Youth and Family Services was officially established.
The Florida Network hit the ground running. In 1988, the Network’s first board of trustees introduced the nation’s only statewide toll-free hotline for runaways. This hotline was a major breakthrough for runaway advocacy and support.
Today, this statewide association boasts a thriving and growing network of programs for at-risk youth and their families. This month, as the Florida Network participates in National Runaway Prevention Month, we reflect on our founding 40 years ago. Founded in order to serve and advocate for Florida’s runaways, we never forget the importance of our work on behalf of these at-risk youth and their families.
According to the National Runaway Safeline, between 1.6 and 2.8 million youth run away each year due to various circumstances. They run from tenuous situations including everything from escaping domestic violence, parental substance abuse or neglect – to running away because a youth’s family does not accept them for their sexual orientation or gender identity. These youth are not bad kids; they are simply stuck in bad situations.
Youth often end up living on the streets after running away – seeking food, shelter and resources to help them survive. Experiencing this trauma at such a young age has the potential to interfere with learning, emotional self-regulation and social relationships. Aside from losing their families, friends and sense of security, runaway youth can fall prey to substance abuse, sex trafficking, early parenthood, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder in the time they are away from home. Furthermore, runaway youth struggle in school and often miss an excessive amount of days, which leads to repeating grades or dropping out of school altogether.
We at the Florida Network strive to provide early intervention and increase overall awareness of the issues facing runaway youth through education. We provide resources, solutions and a safe place for youth considering running away or who have successfully run away. At the Florida Network, our goal is to keep youth and families together by making sure youth feel safe and accepted in their homes and helping to strengthen family relationships.
National Runaway Prevention Month is a nationwide event very close to the Florida Network’s heart.
Above all else, we strive to care for and advocate on behalf of youth (and their families) who feel endangered, scared or alone. Through the stewardship of our 29 member agencies and 28 shelters, we seek to help youth choose not to run away and instead find the support they need to make positive choices, strengthen family relationships and learn the tools to a successful future.
This month, the Florida Network acts as the voice to all those runaway or at-risk youth who cannot speak out. We continue our mission of making every youth and family we serve aware of the profound potential they have to achieve a bright and fulfilling future. It is with unwavering dedication to Florida’s runaway youth that we keep the faith they will return home, or to a safe alternative, and choose to work toward a better life.
Stacy Gromatski is the president and CEO of the Florida Network of Youth and Family Services. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on the Florida Network, visit https://www.floridanetwork.org.