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Helping to Build a Brighter Future for at Risk Teens
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Helping to Build a Brighter Future for at Risk Teens

A year can seem like an eternity to most children -  especially if they happen to be teenagers.  Three years is therefore beyond eternity for them and beyond comprehension.  However, to the staff at Harrison Homes, Inc., both time frames seem like almost yesterday.

Harrison Homes is an agency which operates four therapeutic residential care facilities for at-risk teens.  Two of those facilities, Aliya House and Pride House, are celebrating anniversaries.  Aliya House turns three and Pride House turns one.

When Harrison Homes first began its operations in August 1987, it served as a program for males only, primarily boys who were products of the juvenile justice system.  That all changed in September 2014, when Harrison converted one of its four boys’ homes into Aliya House, a program for girls, most of whom have been commercially sexually exploited.

“There was a huge demand to address the specific needs of the rising tide of girls who are being commercially sexually exploited,” states Antoinette Ardis, Harrison Homes’ Executive Director and a staunch advocate for the rights of the CSEC (commercially sexually exploited children) community.  “The Bay Area is a major national hub for sexual trafficking and we here in the valley are ideally situated to house children who need to be close enough to their families and/or social workers, but a considerable distance away from their exploiters and the lure of those all-too-familiar streets.”  Ardis recalls that there was a time, when Aliya House first opened, that the term “CSEC” was not yet fully commonplace in the child welfare system, even among a few social workers.  “Those times are definitely a thing of the past,” she notes.

Ardis states that the sexual exploitation of children is now so rampant in this country that more than 90% of all the children who are placed at Harrison Homes have been exploited if they have spent more than six months being homeless.  “Regardless if a child is male or female, I guarantee that they have been forced to exchange their bodies for a meal, drugs, or a place to sleep while living on the streets.  It’s absolutely heartbreaking!”

Donald Williams, who is Harrison Homes’ Treatment Team Supervisor, is tasked with the responsibility of making sure the 40 child care workers at Harrison are fully trained in how to best work with and treat highly traumatized youth.  “Not only does everyone who works for us have to be trained regarding trauma care, but a year ago we began requiring that all of our employees have in-depth CSEC training, not just those assigned to work at Aliya House.”  Williams also contends that almost of the agency’s residents have been sexually exploited.  Williams has worked as a basketball coach for decades, including having coached a young LeBron James at one point.  “I pretty much know that boys have to be worked with a bit differently than girls when it comes to this issue.  Boys are a lot more reluctant to talk about it, which is why staff training is so critical.  With our boys you have to look for certain signs or ways that they low-key tell on themselves.  They just aren’t going to tell you outright.” 

And just like the numbers for CSEC in foster care continue to rise, so too do the numbers for children who are sexual minorities, which is what motivated Ardis to open Pride House last year.  Pride House is the only group home in the central valley specifically programmed for LGBTQ foster youth and their allies.   “We are seeing numbers now that indicate 60% of all foster kids identify as LGBTQ,” cites Don Aguillard, Harrison’s Director of Residential Programs & Administration.  “The vast majority of these kids have suffered extreme trauma at the hands of their families before they were finally kicked out or handed over to CPS.”

As the agency’s Program Director, Aguillard aims to provide the 20-24 youth who may be residing in their homes at any given time with the best trauma-informed care and the most nurturing environment.  Aguillard, who also serves as District 5 Planning Commissioner for the City of Stockton, cites a recent report published by the Human Rights Campaign that has found LGBTQ youth to be overrepresented in our nation’s foster care youth.  “Gay, lesbian and bisexual kids account for almost 14% of the kids in foster care, but they are only about 7% of the general population.  For transgender kids, we’re seeing that they account for about 6% of kids in foster care, but they are less than 3% of the general population.”  He adds that the trend will likely continue for quite some time.

Harrison Homes works very closely with the San Joaquin Pride Center to provide the best in training for its staff and programming specific to the needs of its residents.   Ardis points out that, “While we do currently have six LGBTQ youth living at Pride House, we also have youth who are LGBTQ residing in various numbers at our other three houses as well.”  She also credits the SJ Pride Center as having been “indispensable” in helping Harrison Homes train their staff on how to best work with LGBTQ youth, especially those who haven’t yet come out to their families.  She goes on to mourn the fact that in this day and age children still have to fear losing their homes, friends and family all because of who they love.  “We still have residents whose parents will sometimes berate them for being gay.  We work constantly to help these families come to terms with the fact that real love towards one’s child doesn’t manifest itself that way.  I am the mother and the aunt of two young adults who also happen to be gay.  I could never imagine casting them out of my family or my life and I don’t see how anyone else could do that to their own flesh and blood.”

Pride House is a safe space, specifically designed to be free from any words or deeds that are not supportive for its residents.  Ardis has often heard some people deride the concept of safe spaces as harbors for “snowflakes.”  Such comments make her chafe.  “The very core concept of a home is that it is a safe space where people grow and thrive.”  Harrison Homes, she says, takes in children whose wings have been callously broken and helps facilitate their process of healing so that they can go back out into the world and fly.  “That,” she says, “is what home is really all about, isn’t it?”

To learn more about Harrison Homes, visit their website at www.harrisonhomes.org.

 

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