One of the things I love about our community is the way we rally around our youth.
However, as deeply as we care, many are slipping between the cracks.
Prior to COVID, San Juan Islander Necia Quast worked with agencies like the Joyce Sobel Family Resource Center to determine how many homeless teens are in San Juan. At that time there were 18 children ages 13-18 who were homeless on San Juan Island and approximately 18 more on Orcas. Although the report is a few years old, and the numbers may not be the same, information is still critical.
“The reasons vary, the least common is that the entire family is homeless. More often the child is separated from their nuclear family. They may have been kicked out due to conflict with family or other household members or left home for similar reasons. Including personal safety,” the report stated.
Some live in tents, vehicles or stay with friends. Some trade sex for a place to stay or have a similarly exploitative relationship, according to the report.
Melanie Kaegi, Juvenile Probation Counselor for San Juan County, said that amongst a group of girls that she works with, nearly every single one of them had experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault.
In a disturbing trend, there have been multiple cases of sexual assault in our court system over the past year. For survivors, going through court is another battle.
“It’s so isolating, exhausting, fighting to prove you are telling the truth,” a survivor told me recently while reflecting on her experience.
She explained that she continually had to push the system, and felt there were few occasions the court minimized her experiences.
“Someone once told me, ‘I wish you were special, and this was only your experience, but unfortunately it isn’t.’ The only uncommon thing is that in my story: he was charged and sentenced,” she said.
The survivor expressed gratitude for her support group, who encouraged her to continue to fight when things seemed dark and hopeless.
In telling her story, this survivor addressed the dangers of gas-lighting and how at an early age, she didn’t realize what was happening was wrong. She was vulnerable and the perpetrator knew that. .
“Gas-lighing really messes with you, it’s like I was brainwashed. If he told me the sky was purple I would have believed him, and if I didn’t see it, I would have thought there was something wrong with me,” she said.
This is also known as grooming: when someone builds a relationship, trust and emotional connection with a child or young person so they can manipulate, exploit and abuse them. Children and young people who are groomed can be sexually abused, exploited or trafficked. While girls may be the majority targeted, it happens to boys as well. It happens at work, when they are hanging out with friends, on their computers or even in their own homes.
If these issues are difficult to think about, talk about or read about, consider living it.
“A lot of times when I tell someone my story, I end up consoling them,” the survivor said.
As a society, we need to take that burden away, be stronger for those who have survived so much. Educating ourselves about the signs and impacts can help. As a small community, we cannot pretend it doesn’t happen here. It does, and our children need us to start paying attention.
Local business owners have told me that they have kicked individuals off their businesses’ premises because they were acting inappropriately toward minor employees. For the well-being and safety of their employees as well as children, that is a step in the right direction.
The Sheriff’s Office recently implemented Tip411 for witnesses. To learn more about the app, visit https://www.sanjuanco.com/1967/Tip411. SAFE San Juans is available for those who have experienced or are experiencing sexual assault. Visit https://www.safesj.org/ for more information or call 378-360-8680.