Trysta Herzog owns a successful marketing business in Springfield, Missouri.
But when she was a teenager, she was homeless. At 15, Herzog and her older brother decided living with their stepfather who was addicted to heroin was not the safest place for them.
Learning from other teens, she knew she couldn't tell her teachers she was staying on a friend's couch or living out of her car. If she did, they would report her parents to the state for child abuse and then put her in foster care or a residential living home for teens.
"I didn't want to go into the system, knowing that they had the power to strip me from my autonomy," said Herzog, who now volunteers with FosterAdopt Connect at the Springfield location.
Not being able to tell her counselors what was going on made it much harder for them to help her, she said.
Now Herzog is part of a task force in Springfield working to open a drop-in center for struggling teens — a one-stop shop for resources like employment assistance, tutoring, housing assistance and transportation.
But in order for that to be successful, they needed state legislators to change part of the law that mandates service providers to report parents for abuse or neglect simply because their teenagers choose not to live at home.
"Our hands are tied," she said, "if we as mandated reporters have to report that they are homeless."
This month, Gov. Mike Parson signed legislation that will, in part, free up groups like FosterCare Connect to provide homeless teens, 16 and older, with more services.
The bill alters when providers are mandated to report child abuse, stating the fact a teen is unaccompanied is, in and of itself, not sufficient basis anymore.
"This legislation will allow us to serve a vulnerable population of youth who too often fall through the cracks," said Allison Gregory, executive director of FosterAdopt Connect's Southwest Resource Center. "Without the fear of being reported, teenagers will be able to trust that they can enter our doors and get the critical services they need."
The language was part of an omnibus bill to protect "vulnerable persons" containing about 20 provisions, including a measure to prohibit schools from using certain types of restraining or seclusion methods on students, mandating schools accommodate breastfeeding mothers and allowing parents to record school board meetings.
The package of laws takes effect Aug. 28.
The change in the mandated reporting law comes at a crucial time, with the pandemic increasing the number of homeless families and the federal eviction moratorium ending July 31.
The child welfare system is already beyond capacity, said Gwen O'Brien, director of advocacy and prevention at Kansas City's Synergy Services, an agency that provides families respite from violence.
Service providers across the state can now step in and provide homeless teens with immediate assistance without involving the state's Children's Division, which investigates cases of abuse.
"This is not the most appropriate way to use those very limited resources that exist within the division," she said, "when we have agencies in the community, like Synergy, that have the potential to work with that family."
Getting the word out
Libraries. Schools. YMCA's. QuikTrip stores. These are all "Safe Places," which is a national program of designated places children can go if they are in crisis or need food and other services.
But oftentimes, homeless teens won't walk in the door at all, O'Brien said, noting Synergy is among the service providers licensed to retrieve children at the Safe Place locations.
"We don't want people, youth, families, anybody to be afraid of the child welfare system," said O'Brien, who previously worked in the state's Children's Division for 10 years. "It's not that. It is that we can offer the services that a youth would need to overcome homelessness, without involving the child welfare system."
The biggest challenge after Aug. 28 will be making sure the state's hotline employees and the service providers are all aware of the change to the law. It will also take time for teens to hear about the new provision and trust they won't be reported.
"What we are doing is trying to raise awareness within the provider community of this change," said Craig Stevenson, director of policy and advocacy for Kids Win Missouri, one of the groups that lobbied for the provision.
Kids Win Missouri is a nonprofit formed in 2018, after previously being an arm of the progressive think tank, the Missouri Budget Project. This is the group's second successful attempt to get legislation passed that affects homeless teens.
In 2020, the group led a coalition of providers in lobbying for a law mandating homeless children or unaccompanied youths aren't charged a fee or required to have the signature of their parents or guardians for copies of birth records.
"They can't do anything in life if they don't have a copy of their birth certificate," Stevenson said. "But because they're minors, they weren't able to get a copy on their own."
Previously, homeless children could get access to health care but not mental health services, he added. The 2020 bill changed that as well, and also made homeless children eligible for MO HealthNet benefits.
The coalition of providers came together again this year to push for this change in mandated reporting. A mandated reporter still must report suspected abuse or neglect of the youth, and the change only applies to children 16 or older.
The group found a "champion" in state Rep. Patricia Pike, R-Adrian, who was a school counselor for many years. State Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, filed a companion bill.
"As a high school counselor, I witnessed the needs of our at-risk and unaccompanied youth," Pike said in a statement. "Addressing barriers for homeless youth to receive services will result in improved personal well-being and will assist them with the skills to become self-sufficient, independent adults."
That's a point Herzog says is crucial. She was lucky enough to go to an alternative high school, where teachers were able to guide her in the right direction and provide lots of support. She went to become a journalist after college, and not that long ago, she was director of communications for Greene County.
"How can we set them up for success, whether that's foster care if that's needed, or if it is just empowering them and giving them the tools to be successful adults?" Herzog said.
The teenage years are a challenging time for anyone to navigate academics, identify a potential career path, and learn self-care methods to get through tough times and emotions.
"We all struggled with this, whether we were 20 at college or 35 reinventing ourselves," she said. "How can we see that their struggles are compounded by all of these other factors? And what can we do to help them?"
The Missouri Independent is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.