Adolescence can be tough. It involves an incredible amount of change, growth and angst that most of us are happy to have survived. It is period of time when we begin to transition from the “carefree” innocence of childhood to the demands and opportunity of adulthood. Those of us who are also parents of older children have witnessed this growth period and understand how vulnerable even the most nurtured and supported teenager can be. As a licensed mental health professional, I quit using the term “at-risk youth” long ago because I have come to believe that at some point ALL of our youth are vulnerable and at risk. Even those who have a loving, engaged family are at risk – whether it’s an emerging mental illness and/or addiction, or even making one bad, impulsive decision that changes the trajectory of their life forever.
But imagine the risk to those who have already experienced physical, psychological and/or sexual abuse – often by the same people who are supposed to protect them. Imagine the risk to those who are removed from their family, placed into foster care and moved around between multiple foster homes and schools, resulting in even deeper damage to their sense of safety, stability and hope. To complicate it even more, research shows that the “trauma-induced” survival behaviors used by these youths often results in them being even more at risk of incarceration, addiction and sexual exploitation. While we want youth to be engaged in preparing for their future by developing critical skills and exploring their passions, they are forced to focus on surviving rather than thriving.
According to the United States Interagency Council Report to Congress, there are approximately 45,000 children and youth without a parent or guardian under the age of 25 living on our streets, in shelters or transitional housing. Every year King County, in concert with local social service providers, conduct the Count Us In effort that counts youth and young adults ages 12-25 who are homeless or unstably housed. The 2016 count revealed 824 youth and young adults are homeless – 53% were youth of color, 3% identified as transgender or gender-queer, 59% were ages 21-25, and interestingly 81% were last housed in King County. These youths are our neighbors. They were the little boy and girl who rode their bikes up and down the street. They were the summertime squeals unleashed next door when a sprinkler turned on. They could even be our son or daughter’s childhood friend. We can’t ignore that these youth need help.
This is why my nearly 40-year career has been devoted to serving young people who, through no fault of their own, must navigate life without the benefit of an engaged, committed parent or adult. I feel extremely honored to have learned so much from them as they persevere despite the stress of navigating the complex, inconsistent and scarcity of resources. As a mental health professional, I have been called on to provide a clinical assessment on a young person. I am often struck by the difficulty in determining if the symptoms I am seeing in a client is related to the original childhood trauma they experienced or if their immense distress, anxiety and disorganization is a result of their experiences in “the system”.
To make matters worse, many service providers do not have a viable strategy to collect the right type of data that can inform us on “what is working?”, “what community organizations are doing good work?” and just as importantly “what is NOT working?” and “what organizations need to improve their performance”? This is why I am thrilled to have joined Partners for Our Children and to be working on the innovative technology solution that is Oliver.
The need to collect and analyze data is well understood in today’s world of technology. We certainly see this in the business world where Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and so many other leading companies can determine in real-time what is working, who wants it and critical to any system improvement – how to make course corrections. These businesses do not wait for repetitive failures to change their practices, but rather they value their customer’s experience above all else. So why aren’t we doing the same within social services?
It’s safe to say that most – if not all – providers would love to have better data on service effectiveness and efficiency, so they can improve their services and demonstrate success to their funders. But the bottom line is that many lack the resources to invest in a technology solution that would provide them high quality, actionable data. Oliver finally puts smart technology within reach.
We owe it to the children, youth and families we serve to have a 21st century strategy to conduct the same type of data collection and analytics used in the business world so that we can identify what polices, practices and services are actually working and for whom. In my mind, Oliver is a game changer in this regard. I am excited to be part of the Oliver solution that will provide decision makers with high quality data to ensure that the services provided are effective and efficient. Somewhere in our community there is a teenager getting ready to spend their first or 100th night on our streets – I don’t want them to navigate this on their own. As a community, we need to value these young people, the same way good business’ value their customers. Our youth shouldn’t have to do it alone.