Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Escuchame! Searching for the Latino Youth Voice

All youth deserve to be heard.  They provide valuable information about their thoughts, their needs, their struggles, and their dreams.  If we listen carefully enough, we can incorporate their ideas into improving our schools, programs, and communities.  But what happens when that voice is hidden or comes in another language?  Do we stop listening?  Do we ignore it altogether? 
Recent census numbers show that the Latino population in Washington DC is growing consistently and significantly, currently representing 9.1% of the population.  This reflects an increase of nearly 22% from 2000, and is expected to continue growing at a rapid pace.  While some of this is due to immigration trends, many of these new Latinos are US born-youth and children, who are growing up to face the same economic and social challenges that other urban communities of color face.   Yet, when it comes to Latino youth, there is often a huge information gap, and as a result, their voice is stifled.

Despite this growth, Latino youth are often seen as an elusive population, prone to under-counting and not widely represented in studies and reports.  Over the last 9 years as I have worked as a social worker serving these youth and families in DC, I have stopped to ask myself "why?"  Why are Latino youth living in the community not being counted?  Why are their voices not heard?  What can we do to seek out and listen to the Latino youth voice?
Released in October, the DCAYA report Connecting Youth to Opportunity:  Better Understanding Disconnected Young People in Washington, DC, made an interesting breakthrough.  Approximately 26% of the youth participants in the DCAYA study identified as being Hispanic or Latino.  Why is this significant?  It demonstrates that this is not an issue that only impacts the communities “east of the river” but that neighborhoods like Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, and Petworth also contain high numbers of disconnected youth.  But quite simply, it reveals how Latino youth have been consistently underrepresented in previous studies leaving them without the advocacy needed to support them.   Young people in Washington DC continue to battle poverty, homelessness, violence, unplanned pregnancy, trauma, and lack of educational and employment opportunities.  Latino youth are not immune to these problems, yet we often don’t hear about their experiences, their stories of struggle and triumph.     

There are numerous possible factors that contribute to this missing voice and under-counting, including fear of interaction with government or those perceived to be linked to government.  Although they are US-born, Latino youth may have family members who are undocumented, and that is enough to silence them.  Community based organizations like the Latin AmericanYouth Center, Mary’s Center, La Clinica del Pueblo, and Carecen have worked hard to establish trust with Latino families and youth.  At the Latin American Youth Center, we make every effort to amplify that youth voice, and have tasked ourselves with the challenge to better serve their needs, but this issue is so much bigger than us.  By reaching out the community as DCAYA did, valuable information from Latino youth was included in their results and recommendations.  All across the 8 wards of the District, organizations are working with Latino youth, and we need them all to listen carefully and contribute to the conversation.  It is incumbent upon us as service providers, youth advocates, and government entities, to seek out the Latino youth voice, partner with community organizations, and make sure that all residents of the District are counted and heard.  We need to listen carefully, because Latino youth have a lot to say.  

Susana Martinez is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker who has worked with Latino communities in Texas and Washington, DC, and has expertise in providing clinical and case management services to immigrant families, victims of domestic violence, and youth and families within the child abuse and neglect system. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

MISSING: The Will to Find & Protect Our Exploited Youth

Our nation's capital has one of the highest rates of domestic child sex trafficking in the nation, according to the FBI. I only learned this after a 14-year-old child I have known since the first grade, “Shawna,” was found alone in a Los Angeles hotel room this spring after missing for weeks.  Through her, I found out about this dangerous and flourishing world. Then, I found out about something even more disturbing. Our community leaders and residents do not care enough about these kids to devote the resources to find them. The systemic neglect that we tolerate feels like a betrayal that rivals the crime.  

I have known Shawna since she was 6-years-old when I worked at her school in southeast Washington, DC. She had more personality than Rudy Huxtable, as she bounded down the hallway, her uniform perfectly pressed and her hair in neat twists bouncing behind her. You could see the warm confidence in her eyes. No matter what life handed her -- father in jail, homelessness, bullet through her kitchen window as she did the dishes -- she reached beyond the “survival mode” typical of her peers and was always helping other people. I was stunned when she went missing, and troubled that despite the dangers facing Shawna, the system let her down. The many holes in the legal, political, human resource, and law enforcement systems leave so many young people vulnerable to the worst kinds of crime against children.  

In our community, young teens go missing every day. "Runaways" are particularly vulnerable to predators who exploit their need for love, protection, housing and belonging. Dismissed as “bad kids,” their needs are often misunderstood and judgments are made about their families. According to the National Runaway Switchboard, an estimated one-third of the 2.8 million youth who flee their homes each year in our country are lured into prostitution within 48 hours of going missing. Many face turmoil at home and their families may not have the resources they need to find their child and bring them back to safety.

Who are these children? Sadly, the public doesn’t know. Go to the DC Police website and you won’t find names or photos of any missing children. If one digs deep enough, there is eventually a link to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), our country’s premiere nonprofit organization designed to help find and bring children home. However, its missing children list is woefully outdated. For most of this year, there were just three photos of missing DC youth, one of whom is a woman whose dead body was found three years ago (and is still listed as missing). The other two are infants, one of whom went missing in 1983. A 14 and 15-year-old were recently listed as "endangered runaways," missing since July and October 2013. Yet there is no press about these two girls or any of the other youth in similar peril anywhere except the notices tucked away on this webpage. How can anyone claim that our community cares about our children going missing when we don’t even show their faces?

A disproportionate number of runaway and homeless youth have been kicked out of their homes for being gay or transgender. Many other kids have been suspended or expelled from school like Shawna was when she went missing. School suspension policies that leave children wandering the streets contribute to their vulnerability to sex trafficking. Many older youth who are abused or neglected don’t show up at the door of the child welfare system. Our city leaders do not seem to understand that teens do not always fit into boxes. For youth who cannot stay with their families, there is a housing shortage resulting in hundreds being turned away from youth shelters each year, some as young as 12 years old. When this happens, many end up finding shelter through “survival sex” in exchange for a bed. 

When Shawna's mom felt like DC police were not taking her daughter's case seriously, her tiny room in DC’s largest family homeless shelter became "central command." She made her own missing person posters, fielded calls about sightings and tips herself, and followed up on leads at all hours of the night. “We encourage families to conduct their own search efforts,” a police lieutenant explained to me. During her search, Shawna’s mom had a hard time eating and sleeping. She was literally on her own and missed weeks of work without pay. Shawna's two worried brothers also missed school, becoming “detectives,” searching for their sister around town and putting up missing person posters. The eldest brother even planned to be the runner to rescue his sister should she be spotted. "I ran track for two years," he explained, "so we decided I'll be the runner." Every time mom got a tip, she would rush the boys into a car she borrowed, pick up their father, and drive to whatever scary park some stranger thought Shawna was spotted.

Although Shawna had run away for a day or two before, her mom knew this time was different. None of her friends had seen her and Shawna had told several of them she was going to Atlanta or Las Vegas to become a model. This alarming lead compelled me to file a report with NCMEC who was in the process of generating a flyer that would be shared beyond our jurisdiction. Surprisingly, the DC police department was not similarly moved by reports that Shawna might be outside the area to initiate a broader search beyond the city. Moreover, I was told they do not generally inform families of their right to report a missing child case to NCMEC in order to prevent the organization from being overwhelmed.

After Shawna was found by child welfare authorities in California, I sought help from many amazing local and national organizations that specialize in sex trafficking. Following dozens of conflicting phone calls, I learned that unless Shawna was abandoned by her family, got arrested, or ended up overseas, there were no funds to help her get home. Even with a master’s degree in social work, I got so tangled up in the many bureaucracies that my head still hurts. Parents battling poverty need to work extra hard and so do agencies helping them to bridge critical gaps. How can one expect a parent in crisis to take the lead on managing a search without support? One hotline worker actually suggested that Shawna, a teenage victim of sex trafficking, could take Greyhound and travel alone for 65 hours cross-country from California to DC. In the end, the volunteers with our organization that runs a teen program in the shelter raised money to buy Shawna’s plane ticket and bring her home.

Nothing of substance came from my meeting with the DC police and the Mayor’s Office for Public Safety. When I asked why 14-year-old Shawna did not get a missing person poster or mom did not get a return phone call for ten days, all I heard from them was victim blaming and a full-throated defense of the bureaucracy. The homeless working mother of three was criticized for not reporting the case immediately and for reporting it to the wrong agency. When police were not able to reach her by phone, why didn't they make a simple home visit to get the case moving for Shawna? They knew where her mom lived – the D.C General Emergency Family Shelter.

The police even criticized Shawna for telling her pimp that she had permission to go to California and for not being forthcoming with authorities, which anyone in the field will tell you is “textbook” behavior. I’ve learned enough about this issue to know that the dynamics of sex trafficking mean that you should expect the girls to lie about what happened. Under federal law, it does not matter if the child is a willing participant or crosses statelines. A majority of victims show anallegiance to their pimps and do not cooperate in the investigationinitially. Most victims were sexually abused as children and have estranged relationships with their parents, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation even if they do not realize it. Survivors often go back to their pimps and run away repeatedly until they get the help they need and are ready to take the road to recovery. These cases are often complex and can be difficult to investigate, prove and prosecute. But, that does not mean we should give up on any child or toss the case aside because it's too hard.

If our community really cares about child victims of sex trafficking, one would see pictures of missing kids on telephone poles instead of just missing dogs. There would be no need for the website to bring attention to the cases of missing African Americans. There would be pictures of local missing youth plastered on the ad space in the Metro trains and in the newspaper. We would hear weekly updates on missing kids on the local evening news. Pictures would be prominently featured on the homepage of the DC police department website and social media, and flyers would be readily available.

Shared Hope International, an organization that works to strengthen trafficking laws and build better policies to protect victims and prosecute traffickers, buyers, and facilitators, gave DC a “D” rating this year. While some progress has been made, we as a community can make a much stronger commitment to confronting child sex trafficking in our city. We can crack down on the online purchasing of commercial sex acts and devote more resources to the investigation and prosecution of these crimes. We can mandate a missing and rescued children reporting system, require law enforcement training, and other common sense laws that many other states have enacted.

Tonight, on K Street and all around our area, children coerced into prostitution will be working. Adult men will rape them, and the worst these perpetrators can expect is a modest fine, not much more than if they ran a red light. There is no fear of being charged with statutory rape; our laws do not differentiate between buying sex with an adult and buying sex with a minor. And yet children as young as thirteen are still being thrown in jail in DC on prostitution charges, treated as criminals instead of victims.

Courtney’s House is a survivor-run organization that provides life-saving support services to help children recover from sex trafficking.  Their outreach program searches the streets and the internet for suspected victims or children at risk of being trafficked. Director Tina Frundt welcomes new youth from across the region to the house every day with the magical combination of unconditional love and tough love. She told Shawna, “You can run, but I can run faster.” Isn’t that the message we, as a community, should send to our children? That no matter what, we will look for them, and we will bring them home?

In the District of Columbia, there's a hole in our safety net literally big enough for missing children to disappear through. We're not talking about a missing wallet; we're talking about a person. When a child is missing in our community, no matter his or her life circumstances, shouldn't it be personal for all of us?

In addition to being an amazing writer and powerful voice for some of our most vulnerable youth, Jamila Larson is the Executive Director of the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project . This incredible program, and both their amazing staff and dedicated volunteers  make sure that regardless of housing status, DC children and youth have the chance to play, explore, grow, and thrive. 

For more on youth issues in DC you can FOLLOW us on Twitter, LIKE us on Facebook, SUBSCRIBE to this blog and VISIT us at

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Youth Voices: Jonathan Williams

When I first met Jonathan, he was soft-spoken and laughed often. In between interviews, he talked about “females” and wanting to get his driver’s license. When we shot b-roll on the street, he would stop people and chat with them about school or the military or whatever other topic popped into his head. Jonathan is an easy-going, likable guy.

One afternoon, when the red record light was off and we were chatting on the way back to the car, he shouted hello to a guy across the street. Just making casual conversation, I asked if the guy was in his program. “Nah,” Jonathan said, “we were on vacation together.” Genuinely excited to hear about his trip, I asked him where they went, wondering if it was a perk of the program and thinking how great of an experience it must be for him to get out of the city. Jonathan just chuckled and said, “Nah, it’s not that kind of vacation, we were incarcerated together.”
Hand to the forehead moment.

Depending on an interviewee’s personality, the lens of a camera can either cause a person to clam up or open up. In Jonathan’s case, if people are willing to listen, he’s willing to talk. During the time we spent working on his Youth Voices video, he touched on topics from gang violence, to family loss, to homelessness. Jonathan tells stories exactly how he sees them and is not afraid to give his opinion, even when he prefaces his thoughts with, “don’t get me wrong,” and “I don’t want to offend anybody, but this is how it is.” His honesty leaves you sickened by the system, but rooting for him and his generation.

Once the camera is turned off though, it’s easy to forget his struggles, because he’s just another guy. 

We mentioned in last week’s blog that November is Homeless Youth Awareness Month and that homeless youth are an invisible population. Homeless youth and disconnected youth are often one in the same. Unstable housing makes lasting stability in jobs or school next to impossible. Sadly, most of the time an average person only hears about a homeless youth or a disconnected youth in DC when they are in the news for theft or gang violence or worse. What these news stories fail to mention is everything that leads up to that single bad choice; personal histories that many youth keep hidden.

Jonathan’s story is one worth listening to and his on-camera persona and off-camera personality are one in the same. Young people are multifaceted human beings with complicated pasts and undefined futures. As members of the DC community, we should do more than just root for Jonathan’s generation. It is our responsibility to ensure all youth like Jonathan have a place to stay, a warm meal to eat, opportunities for employment in the city, and the chance to be a contributing member of society.

Because after the YouTube video ends, Jonathan’s just a 21 year old guy trying to survive in Washington, DC. 

Want to help youth like Jonathan? Read the Plan to End Youth Homelessness in DC and write your councilmember a letter stating why DC must invest in opportunities for local youth.

E-Sign-On Letter

Plan to End Youth Homelessness in DC

Personalized Sign-On Letter

Pre-populated Sign-On Letter

As the Multimedia and Communications Associate at DCAYA, Angela Massino, works to #unmask  youth homelessness through social media outreach and short films. You can follow Jonathan Williams Twitter and Tumblr campaign #iamDC as he defines what it means to be a youth living in Washington, DC. 

For more on youth issues in DC you can FOLLOW us on Twitter, LIKE us on Facebook, SUBSCRIBE to this blog and VISIT us at

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Together We Can #EndYH

Some youth want to stand out. They want to be different. They want to be known as the kid who’s really good at football, or wears funky shoes, or is not afraid to speak their mind in class. Others want to blend in. They want to move with the crowd, speak softly in groups, laugh at other kids’ jokes; basically get through high school unharmed and undetected. Whether they want to stand out or blend in or somewhere in between, no matter what kind of youth they are, they don’t want to be known as homeless.

Living and working in DC, you know what homelessness looks like. Whether you walk, commute, or ride the metro, you see the same familiar faces either pandering to pedestrians or keeping to themselves on your route to work. These faces of homelessness have become a part of your city experience. Those times you do drop a few cents into an empty Starbucks cup or the charity box in your local church, you see those faces being helped on the other side of your donation. And you should.

Then, there are the invisible homeless. The kids who just want to be normal, who are not ready to spare the little bit of pride they’ve earned, and who desperately just want to get through adolescence and somehow come out successful and stable on the other end. These 2,452 homeless youth were enrolled in DC public schools as of February 2013, and according to DC officials that number is rising.

Some of these youth may not ask for money, they may just take it because asking feels like they’re begging, just like the person they saw at the metro on their route to school. Other youth will keep it hidden until temperatures drop so low they are forced to seek refuge indoors, in places where they’ve heard horror stories of young men and women being raped or attacked in the shelters. Even then, during nights when hypothermia is imminent and sleeping outside is a guaranteed death trap, they can still be turned away from DC shelters.

While the issue of homelessness needs to be addressed citywide, during the month of November it’s this invisible homelessness that we must remind our community exists. Youth don’t want others to know they have no place to go at night and that’s understandable; they just want to be normal. Therefore, it’s our responsibility to show the DC Council the prevalence of youth homelessness and that there is a solution.

Throughout November, DCAYA urges you to take a stand to End Youth Homelessness in our city. By tweeting at councilmembers, local reporters, and social influencers, you are letting the youth of DC know that they are not alone and not forgotten. Read the Plan to End Youth Homelessness in DC and handwrite a letter to your councilmember, letting them know that this issue is important to you and that you expect them to seriously strategize and invest in youth resources. Together we can end youth homelessness in DC. Together we can #UnmaskYH to #EndYH.

Click on the following links to help join the movement to End Youth Homelessness in DC.

Plan to End Youth Homelessness in DC

E-Sign-On Letter

Personalized Sign-On

Pre-populated Sign-On Letter

Social Media Communications Strategy to End Youth Homelessness

YOUTH VOICES: Charmia Carolina

DCAYA would also like to give a major "Thank You" to Eddy Ameen and Susan Ruether. These two incredible youth advocates donated hundreds of hours to DCAYA and our member organizations, facilitating over a year of conversations, completing tons of research and authoring the Plan to End Youth Homelessness. We could not have done it without their endless energy and profound expertise and are deeply thankful to them for contributing so much to this effort.

Angela Massino is the Multi-Media and Communications Associate at DC Alliance of Youth Advocates. She believes through the power of storytelling, we may all understand the shared human experience and feel compelled to act on social injustices. Watch the video of Charmia Carolina, who shared her story of youth homelessness and disconnection so others may understand what it’s like to be a youth living in Anacostia, DC.

  For more on youth issues in DC you can FOLLOW us on Twitter, LIKE us on Facebook, SUBSCRIBE to this blog and VISIT us at