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Outreach program successfully rescues runaway teens

January 4, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
There is a population of runaway teenagers who are on the street tonight. They are at highest risk for becoming victims of crime.

An Eyewitness News Exclusive exposes the trap they fall into and how an innovative program is saving many of them.

"My name is Katrise. I am 18. And I think when I realized I didn't want to be where I was when I was actually 5. My first time running away I was 12 years old."

If you had Katrise's childhood, you might have run too. A helpless toddler in a home so abusive that social workers took her away. But placing her with a relative hurt too.

"All the time she would say that I was just going to end up like my mom, which was a druggie on the street," said Misti Ward, DCFS Runaway Outreach Unit.

The prediction was half-right: Katrise ran away and into the arms of a predator, a man who peddled the 14-year-old on the street.

"There was a lot of times that I could have been dead from people trying to kidnap me," said Katrise.

Katrise's escape is a story of persistence.

Every month the Runaway Outreach Unit of the Department of Children and Family Services searches possible addresses for missing teens. But there are 60 to 100 new runaway cases every month. And the kids are experts at hiding most of the time.

What saved Katrise, and is now saving others, are uniquely skilled caseworkers reaching out through social media. Because while runaways abandon foster homes, they don't give up their Facebook pages. Caseworkers find them and begin a delicate process to connect, building trust over months of careful chatting.

"It can be tricky, because you don't want them to block you," said Ward.

Misti Ward specializes in sexually exploited kids. Her messages to Katrise became a lifeline. Katrise kept them.

"She says, 'Hey Katrise, call me when you get a chance. I just want to know if you're OK,'" said Katrise.

"The key with Katrise was listening to her and hearing her, and letting her know how important, how great she is. Because she is, she is really a great girl, amazing," said Ward.

"I've never really had anyone that was there for me, and she showed that she was there for me," said Katrise.

The method has had dramatic results. The success rate of the Runaway Outreach Unit has doubled according to director Eric Ball.

"Half our kids we locate through social media. I'd say a quarter of the kids we locate the other way, which was the old-fashioned way," said Ball.

And that's even more significant, he says, because he has only six workers handling 70 cases each.

What keeps them going: the many others like Katrise.

After a bruising childhood, Katrise is now in a stable home, has a job and is enrolled in college, grateful for the one Facebook friend who changed everything.

"The system is crazy but at the end of the day, like if you do what you have to do in the system, you can end up with good things," said Katrise.