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House is safety net for wayward teens

The RAP House is known for serving runaways but also helps families that aren't getting along.

By COLLEEN JENKINS
Published January 8, 2006


[Times photo: Brendan Fitterer]
Michelle March is now a detective with the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. As a teen, she was a chronic runaway. The RAP House in New Port Richey, which provides temporary shelter for problem teens, deserves the credit for the turnaround, she says.

NEW PORT RICHEY - She didn't want to be there, but she didn't have a choice.

Michelle March remembers her stepfather dropping her off at the RAP House. She was a teenager, wearing her cheerleading uniform and carrying a garbage bag full of clothes he had packed. They had a stormy relationship, she said, and he didn't want her at home.

So he turned to a place its leaders describe as "an emergency room for families."

Back then, March might not have agreed with the depiction. Now, the 31-year-old Pasco County sheriff's detective knows better.

"I didn't like it," March said last week. "I didn't like having to be somewhere I didn't want to be. But it was safe. Nobody blamed me. Nobody pried."

The RAP House, short for Runaway Alternatives Project, is best known as Pasco County's shelter for youth who run away, regularly skip school or are in between foster care placements.

It receives less attention, however, for its more universal function: a place of respite for teens and families struggling to get along.

"We're like a safety net," said Mark Phillips, who oversees services provided to families and children in need through Youth and Family Alternatives, which runs the RAP House. "We kind of catch them before they fall."

A teenager who won't follow rules, breaks curfew, threatens to run away or refuses to attend school can overwhelm a family. The RAP House aims to cool that tinderbox before a kid ends up in foster care or the juvenile justice system.

Youth ages 10 to 17 can stay at the RAP House for up to three weeks. During that time, the teen is provided the basics for free: Supervision, meals, shelter and safety. The kids go to school.

Two staff counselors also work with them to determine what needs to change at home. They engage the family, serving both as consultants and mediators in the moment of crisis.

"Even if we just (give) them a moment of something different," said RAP House director Andy Coble, "then we've done our job."

Counselors encourage families to follow through with outpatient services once their teen's temporary stay is over, Phillips said, particularly if mental health or substance abuse issues exist. Those services are offered on a sliding fee scale.

"Most of the times there's nothing wrong with the families we work with," Phillips said. "They just need ideas.

"Parents say, "I love my kid, I just don't like him right now.' "

Hooking up with the RAP House is fairly easy. A parent can call (727) 835-1777 or toll-free 1-800-226-7187 for a screening that takes a few minutes. A staff member determines whether the program is appropriate for the teen at that time.

If one of the 18 beds is available, the youth can undergo an initial assessment and be admitted to the shelter at 7522 Plathe Road.

The program is funded through state money and private donations. Inside the shelter's 6-year-old building, boys' and girls' rooms are separated by locked doors and distinguished by blue and pink painted walls. Youths' artwork from over the years decorates the hallways.

March got to know the youth shelter's old building in Hudson fairly well as a 15- and 16-year-old. She often alternated between stints on the street or at friends' homes, hoping to escape an unhappy home, she said.

She credits the RAP House with providing her a glimpse of the structure she longed for. Each of her visits - as many as five, she estimates - lasted only a few days. But without them, she believes she would have turned to drugs and alcohol, as several of her siblings did.

"It is a place for not just the parents but the kids to turn," she said recently, sitting in an interview room at the Sheriff's Office. "It's not a jail. It's a safe house."

Proof of her respect for the place remains evident. As a deputy on road patrol, she transported unruly teens there to prevent them from hitting a parent or worse.

And as the mother of a red-headed, 7-year-old daughter, she knows she and her child always have an outlet if they need it.

Colleen Jenkins covers courts in west Pasco County. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6236 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6236. Her e-mail address is cjenkins@sptimes.com

[Last modified January 8, 2006, 00:44:19]


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