The efforts of SAFE Inc. of Schenectady haven’t gone unnoticed, and the state Office of Children and Family Services is helping the organization expand its mission.
The local organization has worked with the county Department of Social Services to end youth homelessness and sexual exploitation in the area since 1985, and the state OCFS is providing funding to help: a $90,000 grant to further address trafficking and exploitation of youth in Schenectady County.
In 2008, the state passed its Safe Harbor law, which defines children or minors involved in trafficking crimes as victims and protects them from being charged with a juvenile delinquent offense.
The OCFS grant is part of the state’s 2016 Safe Harbor Initiative to implement Safe Harbor programming in the county.
The county Legislature voted to accept the funding last Tuesday night.
Melanie Conte, the resource developer of SAFE, said the organization was recommended to receive the grant by the county Department of Social Services.
“Through years of hard work, we established our reputation,” she said. “The Office of Children and Family Services is familiar with our work, and we are so grateful to them.”
Executive Director Cassie McCracken said the funding will go toward programming and targeting many areas of need to fight against trafficking in the county.
“Because of funding like this, we are able to do things like raise community awareness, enhance outreach and direct services to the youth,” she explained. “There are so few of us throughout the state doing this kind of work and focusing specifically on this population, we are hoping to create through the community an awareness, a collaboration and a holistic approach to treating the victims of trafficking because there are so many different components that they need.
“Expanding our mission and breaking the cycle of trafficking is a local, community effort,” she added.
Dennis Packard, the former county commissioner of social services, discussed SAFE’s plan for the state funds at the county committee meeting last week.
The money will cover a lot of ground, he said, and will include programming such as supporting the creation of a collaborative Trafficking Task Force; developing screening and referral capabilities for children and youth impacted by sexual exploitation; developing a community awareness campaign; and helping SAFE Inc. to provide case assessment, short-term shelter, intensive case management, and aftercare or help reintegrating into the community.
Conte said training the child welfare staff community and other support agencies, supporting survivors of trafficking and providing trafficking prevention education in school districts and for local youth providers is also important.
“We have a structure and ideas of how we want to do things, but we won’t move full-steam ahead with them until we get approval from the Office of Children and Family Services,” she explained. “We really need support for survivors. The youth need to establish trust and a relationship with the person doing the identification in order to feel comfortable, and once that is established, then we can have that support for survivors.”
Over the past few years, Conte said SAFE has received lesser amounts of funding from the state, but the organization will remain “fully funded” with $90,000 for the next two years.
“We certainly hope the funding will continue after that, but it may not,” Conte said. “You never know — that’s why we’re going to make the most of it, and be sure to work hard, expand our mission and make a difference.”
To get involved with the community’s Trafficking Task Force, or to report a possible trafficking case, call the SAFE shelter on its 24-hour hotline at 374-5178.