Like troubled teens, youth shelters skate on thin ice
By MELANIE AVE, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- Here in this limbo between the streets and home, the runaway makes promises to his counselor.
He'll call his mother every day, he says quietly. He'll tell her he wants to work out their problems. He'll try this time.
The lanky teen slumps in his chair, twisting a piece of paper between his fingers.
"I've got to talk more," he says, repeating what he's been told by those who want to help. "I've got to express how I feel."
Counselor Kathy Fabbri asks why.
"So I don't go and do something stupid like I did last time."
Last time -- the time that landed him here at the Haven Poe Runaway Center -- Brian Jones got into trouble at school, ran away from his Brandon home and spent the night in a cardboard box at a construction site.
This is his fourth stay at the shelter.
He has run away dozens of times, been suspended from school and arrested once.
Somehow, the shelter must knit this broken boy back together with his family.
Brian will go home soon. No one knows if he'll stay.
As Brian's future hangs in the balance, so does the fate of the state's 32 runaway shelters.
Last month, Gov. Jeb Bush unveiled a budget proposal for next year that would slice shelter funding by 56 percent, from $27.3-million to $12-million.
Bush said the cuts are needed to balance the budget in rough economic times.
Youth advocates said the cuts will tear a hole in a delicate system whose primary goal is to keep teens from sinking into juvenile delinquency.
At the shelters, teens receive short-term housing, constant supervision and frequent counseling. The shelters also provide emergency beds for youths who are in state custody, the neglected and abused.
If Bush's budget is passed, shelter officials said 13 runaway facilities will close, including at least two of three shelters in Pinellas County and Manatee County and one of three shelters in Pasco County, Hernando County or Polk County. Shelter space will be reduced. Outpatient counseling will cease.
Law enforcement will have fewer options when dealing with troubled teens.
Shelter officials said the result will be more kids in foster care, detention facilities or jail.
"If you take away the emergency room in a community, who is going to pick that up?" asked Dee Richter, executive director of the Florida Network of Youth and Family Services, which helps coordinate shelter services. "There really is no other place like this."
Jane Harper, president of Family Resources, which operates runaway shelters and family counseling in Pinellas County, said the cuts would cripple her organization.
At the Haven Poe center in Tampa, shelter manager Bill Hogan wonders most about what would happen to the teens in his care.
Each year about 700 children cycle in and out of the 24-bed shelter, staying from three days to three months. Another 900 teens and their families receive outpatient counseling.
"We're afraid we will lose our capacity to really help families in the community," he said.
Opened in 1975, the Haven Poe Runaway Center sits snuggled in the neighborhoods of east Hyde Park. A yellow and black sign outside the front door reads: "Safe Place."
Inside is a girl who was taken from her family because she was living in a house with no electricity. There is a boy who keeps running away from his foster families. And a teenage mother who has been through a drug rehabilitation center.
Brian Jones is there, too.
He's 14, but he tells the others he's 15. He wears baggy shorts that hang below his plaid boxer shorts. He has a still face that hides most emotions, brown eyes that tilt upward and a brilliant and sudden smile -- just like his mother.
Margaret Weaden said her son was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder as a young boy. But it wasn't until he was 12 that the real problems started.
He began fighting with kids at school. Disrupting class. Throwing things. He was suspended, held back a grade, then sent to alternative school.
At home, he refused to do chores or shower. Then he started walking out of his house, climbing out of his bedroom window or not coming home at all.
His mom, a nurse, started sleeping on the couch so she could keep watch over him at night. When he tried to flee, she sometimes wrestled him to the ground.
Other times, his escape was too quick.
Beneath his blue Coca-Cola bedspread at home is evidence of his tornadic emotions: books torn to shreds, records chipped into pieces, a watch from his birth father broken into tiny silver bits.
"He's very angry," Mrs. Weaden said. "I don't know why."
Brian seems to be two different people: destructive and disobedient at home, but well behaved at the shelter.
Even Brian realizes the duality. He wrote this poem:
I can be sweet like a strawberry
I can be sour like a lemon
I can be cuddly like a bear
I can be mean and not share
Brian likes staying at Haven Poe. He could run away if he wanted. There are no locks on the doors.
Perhaps it is the structure of life there. The teens wake up at 7 a.m., do their morning chores, meet in small groups and then go to school. They get breaks to eat, exercise and socialize.
They go to bed at 9:30 p.m.
They are supervised 24 hours a day and graded on everything from their personal hygiene to their attitude.
Those with the highest scores get the most privileges, such as video games and outside trips.
This particular day begins inside the dimly lit and dank boys dorm where five teenagers sink into blue couches.
Counselor Jose Magenst wants them to talk about healthy lifestyles. He asks what that means.
Then a rolling answer from a 15-year-old who has been in the state's custody because of family abuse: "You should not drink, smoke or do anything to harm your body."
The other boys look down at their laps.
"You should go to school, get an education, get a diploma," Brian pipes up. "You should go to college, get a degree."
Then he remembers another aspect of having a healthy life.
Avoid sex when you're young, or wear a condom if you do have sex but don't want a baby.
"You should wait until you get married to have sex," Magenst corrects him.
"Not!" shouts a skinny boy who carries around a Chucky doll and a temper.
"Shut up," Brian says.
Brian Jones will soon be named a peer manager at the shelter, an honor given to the best behaved.
It's 9 a.m., which means it's time to climb the stairs and begin school in a tiny classroom with two-way glass at the back.
Hillsborough County teacher Barbara Wishart passes out the newspaper and asks the teens to find five words they don't know. A boy with greased hair and a pierced chin complains.
"I haven't been in school in three years," he says to anyone who will listen. "I shouldn't have to do all this work. I know all I want to know."
Wishart glares at the boy and says his name with conviction.
"Okay," he huffs. "I'll find some words."
The unknown words Brian chooses: Ram, consultant, culvert, pharmacist, obligation.
Later is a a math lesson where the teens are asked to divide 100 by 6.75.
Brian tells his classmates who are clearly struggling with the assignment to move the decimal point over two places first.
"How old are you, boy?" asks the teenage mother.
"Fifteen," Brian answers, embarrassed but proud.
"He's smarter than me and I'm 17."
It's about two weeks into Brian's fourth stay at the shelter. A committee of law enforcement and school officials are meeting to decide his future.
Around a large conference table sit a police officer, a school social worker, a prosecutor, a court official and two of Brian's counselors.
Fabbri tells the case-staffing committee about Brian's conflicting behaviors.
With her son sitting next to her staring out the window, Margaret Weaden explains how she wishes he would learn the consequences of his actions and quit running away every time he gets into trouble.
"At this point," she said, "I'm really afraid of where Brian's life is going."
Brian doesn't disagree with his mother's assessment. His only request is to see his birth father more often.
The committee asks the mother and son to leave while they come up with a plan.
When the family returns, Brian can hardly contain his smile as he reads a poem he wrote:
I can and I will
I am kind of still
I can make it good
I am and I would
The committee chairwoman tells Brian he will be sent home. He and his family must continue outpatient counseling. He must go to school and behave. He must mind the rules of the home.
And he must not leave without his parent's permission.
Tampa police Capt. Scott Buchanan gives Brian his pager number and tells him it's his own personal hotline. Call it, he said, if you get the urge to run away.
If he fails to behave at home, Brian will go before a judge.
Brian calls the plan a fair one.
His mother, who said she has lost five jobs because of Brian's misbehavior, said she's ready to try anything that will help.
"I love him," she says. "He's my son. I don't want to lose him."
Two days later, on Saturday, shelter supervisor Dale Herbst walks into the boy's dorm and tells Brian to gather all his belongings from room No. 128. He's being discharged.
"I thought it was a home visit," Brian says, stuffing his clothes and papers into a clear plastic sack. "Do you have Ms. Kathy's number?"
"We're not going to call Ms. Kathy," Herbst says. "It's time to rack and pack."
Within minutes, Brian's mother arrives. She hugs him, signs his discharge papers and they walk quietly out the door of the Haven Poe Runaway Shelter, past the sign reading: "Safe Place."
-- Times staff writer Curtis Krueger contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or firstname.lastname@example.org .
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