Q: What is an adolescent?

The United Nations and World Health Organization define “adolescents” as young people between the ages of 10 and 19. This overlaps with the typical categories of "children" (age 12 and under) and “youth” (13 to 25) favored within the NGO and philanthropic community. Although much of IOFA’s work focuses on impacting adolescents under the age of 18, we recognize that the issues of adolescence can start much earlier and end much later than any designated period of child development.  Adolescents are a diverse group comprised of different ages, genders, cultures, sexual orientations, marital status, in or out of school, working or not, living with family or not, and much more. IOFA’s work is grounded in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child and based on our belief in the fundamental human rights, dignity, and worth of all people, including those designated as children, adolescents, or youth.

Q: Why focus on vulnerable adolescents?

Adolescents and youth under 25 make up over 40% of the world’s population (World Data Bank, 2014). Developmentally, the stage between puberty and adulthood is the most rapid and risky. Adolescents may walk, talk, and act like adults, but their neurobiological development is still in process. While adolescence may be characterized by optimal physical health, engagement in risk behaviors and mental health struggles are also common for this age group. For this reason, youth under 25 are considered the most at risk of exploitation and harm. In the U.S., the public sector spends millions to assist young people in reaching their potential through birth to five initiatives, head start, after school programs, college readiness, etc. But in the U.S. and abroad, many young people have trouble accessing appropriate social services due to unstable family situations, poverty, isolation, trauma, and abuse. IOFA's programming aims to assist those youth who face the biggest hurdles in exercising their human rights and realizing their full potential, specifically, youth who are in foster care, orphaned, unaccompanied, incarcerated, runaway, homeless, or otherwise living without adequate family support. 

Q: What is human trafficking? How does it affect youth?

Simply stated, human trafficking is the commodification and enslavement of a person so that another can profit or otherwise benefit from a victim's labor, services, and/or sex acts. Child trafficking for sex or labor are severely punishable under the United Nations Palermo Protocol of 2000 and the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act. However, instances of sex and labor trafficking involving youth continue to occur at unacceptable rates in the U.S. and around the world. The U.S. Department of State's annual Trafficking in Persons Report details child trafficking cases in virtually every country, as well as the extent of efforts to combat the problem. The ILO estimates that 168 million children around the world are engaged in child labor, including 85 million in hazardous work environments. UNICEF estimates that up to two million children worldwide are involved in the global sex trade. 

Q: Do you provide direct service to youth?

By design, IOFA is not a direct service organization, but a small, specialized organization with the multiplier effect of improving and increasing capacity among local service organizations. There are two reasons for this: 

1. We can’t do it alone; the target population is diverse and their needs are wide-ranging
Our gut reaction, when we hear about children in need or victims of abuse is to help, but it can be difficult to determine the best way to help an individual with a number of interconnected issues. For example, a homeless teenager’s first need is shelter for the night, but what happens the next day, and the day after that? Who will work with that teenager to get them back in school or the workforce? If that teen has a criminal record or family to support, who will be their liaison with law enforcement or family mediator? Finally, who will provide counseling to help the teenager work through whatever put them on the street to begin with? What we’ve found is that there are many organizations that provide critical services to at-risk adolescents and youth, but no single organization has the capacity to reach and serve this population in isolation. Youth enter the system through many different channels and may receive a patchwork of services through public programs and private agencies. Our goal is to ensure coordination and specialization among these service providers and systems so that adolescents and youth receive the kind of holistic care that they can use to build a positive future for themselves.

2. Local ownership is better; we leave a light footprint

IOFA works to build local organizational capacity and organize coordinated community response mechanisms that leverage local resources, knowledge, and expertise. In this way, IOFA’s project models offer long-term sustainability after IOFA leaves the program or project. We don’t seek to supplant what is working on the ground or to build parallel systems; we seek to strengthen local response to complex child welfare issues. All IOFA projects involve partnerships formalized by Memoranda of Understanding with local organizations and/or government entities. 

Q: What is your mission, vision, and theory of change?

IOFA's mission is to eliminate human trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable adolescents worldwide by developing innovative programs and solutions to protect youth.

IOFA envisions a world where adolescents and youth are able to exercise their human rights and to realize their full potential as positive and productive members of society without fear of exploitation, violence, or neglect.

For the most part, IOFA does not work toward its mission through direct service to vulnerable adolescents, although many of our partner agencies do. Instead, our theory of change involves filling the gap in the capacity of direct service organizations to change the systems that youth encounter and that serve youth. We seek to impact not only the direct service youth receive to meet their needs, but how the needs of vulnerable youth are prioritized within larger social service/justice/health systems.

We focus on these three systems because our target population is youth who traditionally are not engaged with the education system--where most youth interventions are based. By the same token, our emphasis on parentless youth and youth without stable family support requires us to regard young people as autonomous actors with individual needs, motivations, and desires. Our approach to designing project interventions is rights-based and participatory, without enforcing morals or paternalistic ideas of 'what is best' for a young person. One final assumption to our theory of change model is that issues faced by vulnerable youth can be complex and overlapping, requiring multi-disciplinary expertise and holistic interventions that publicly-funded bureaucracies rarely initiate on their own.

With these considerations, we believe that if we take a multi-disciplinary approach toward partnering with youth-serving organizations and agencies, we can provide innovative solutions to complex child welfare issues. By providing these solutions and replicating our successes as appropriate, we achieve the short-term outcome of improving service delivery and coordination, while working toward the long-term outcomes of increasing institutional capacity among our service-providing partners and broadening the understanding of complex child welfare issues among the public and policy makers. Enhancing institutional capacity and broadening understanding of how to eliminate human trafficking and exploitation should result in a society where vulnerable young people need not fear exploitation, violence, or neglect because the child welfare systems in place provide adequate protection and support. This will then afford young people the ability to exercise their human rights and realize their full potential.