by Allison Gregory, Executive Director – SWMO, FosterAdopt Connect
FosterAdopt Connect is one of many Springfield organizations looking to provide shelter and service supports to Springfield’s approximate 1,100 homeless or unaccompanied area teens. While providers are eager to offer services, these teens too often stay under the radar – avoiding situations that could result in a hotline to the Children’s Division. Current law, set to change on August 28 with the signing of HB 432, has required mandated reporters to report any instance of accompaniment or homelessness of teens as abuse or neglect.
HB 432, signed by the Governor on July 14, 2021, allows teenagers to access services without being reported. Effective on August 28, HB 432 clarifies that that being unaccompanied or homeless is not, in and of itself, sufficient for reporting child abuse and neglect if a child is at least 16 years old. This is consistent with other statute that allows unaccompanied youth 16 and over to contract for their own housing, healthcare, and bank accounts. Without the fear of being reported, we are optimistic that teenagers will be able to trust that they can enter their doors and get the critical services they need.
Unaccompanied and homeless youth are a vulnerable population that too often end up falling through the cracks or going undetected. In Springfield, for example, youth can receive services up to the age of 12, and again at 18 – leaving a large gap in coverage for the youth ages 13-17.
This lack of coverage comes at a critical point where youth are entering transformative years and striving towards self-sufficiency. There are a variety of reasons teens may be at risk for homelessness or become homeless. Teens experiencing homelessness most often may take up temporary residency on a friend’s couch or with a relative, others may sleep in a car, while others do not have a place to turn.
Providers report that common places where homeless teens had been hanging out have been heavily targeted by police and they have been told that they can no longer stay in those locations. This has resulted in many of youth taking up residence in abandoned buildings and moving to other sleeping spots where we have yet to be able to connect with them again on outreach. In one instance a 17-year-old girl arrived at a local women’s shelter and was turned away due to her age. She was referred to a pop-up cold weather shelter at a local church who also denied her because of her age. According to a volunteer she was turned out to the street on a night that was below 32 degrees.
FosterAdopt Connect is working with a number of community partners to open a new drop-in center for homeless youth. Partners include Springfield Public Schools, Burrell Behavioral Health, Jordan Valley Health, Boys and Girls Club, Greene County Juvenile Office, Green County Children’s Division, The Library, and Community Partnership of the Ozarks. With a combination of state funding and private funding, FosterAdopt Connect is hoping to begin providing services by early 2022.
At risk and homeless youth have diverse needs that benefit from wraparound services from multiple agencies coordinated into a single plan of care. The center will provide access to immediate basic needs, identify needs & connect youth to community resources, and assistance to reengage youth in school. By reinforcing a sense of social trust and increasing a youth’s ability to improve cognitive, emotional, and behavioral capacities, we can aid in their transition into adulthood.
By providing youth a safe space to reengage with their families and communities, this program will also serve as direct prevention of abuse and neglect. In other states that have implemented similar policies and programming, providers have seen most youth redevelop some sort of relationship with their families, with some reunifying. In other instances, youth have used the space and services to independently seek employment, safe and secure housing, and transition into postsecondary or career tracks. These outcomes help provide an individualized approach to serving this vulnerable population, while also preventing the youth from needing to enter the foster care system.
Our center will allow youth to develop more stable relationships with health and social service institutions. They have the potential to become gainfully employed, engaged citizens, and caring partners and friends. It is our hope this will help to break the generational cycle of disadvantage.