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    Agencies hope house calls will help disruptive youths

    By CURTIS KRUEGER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2001


    Troubled by stories of children as young as 6 being handcuffed, arrested and criminally charged in Pinellas County, three local mental health agencies today will ask the Juvenile Welfare Board to tackle the problem with house calls.

    The agencies are seeking $192,352 to identify especially disruptive grade school kids and offer in-home visits to their families.

    The program is designed to find solutions to children's behavior problems, and to help prevent arrests and incarceration of children ages 5 to 11. It will become one of the few prevention programs locally and statewide aimed at such young children.

    "I don't think the majority of us as citizens or caring adults would like to see a child in a restrictive setting like a Juvenile Detention Center," said Robyn Baskin, director of children's continuous care for Personal Enrichment through Mental Health Services, or PEMHS, which would administer the program.

    A series published in the St. Petersburg Times in December called "Under 12/Under Arrest," prompted local officials to design the new program, said Thomas C. Wedekind, PEMHSexecutive director.

    Wedekind said the program would serve as a bridge between grade schools throughout Pinellas and families who are struggling to improve children's behavior.

    The project was developed with the JWB staff, which has recommended approval.

    Circuit Judge Marion Fleming, a juvenile judge and member of the JWB Board, said the program "sounds like it will be part of the solution to helping these kids stay out of the juvenile justice system."

    Under the program, therapists and other staff will accept referrals from elementary school teachers, school resource officers and other sources. The referrals will be for grade school children who already have been arrested or who have emotional or mental health problems "and are at risk of entering the juvenile justice system," according to a JWB staff report.

    Therapists will visit the families of these children -- with parents' cooperation -- and discuss how to communicate better with children and strategies for solving behavior problems with children, as well as other issues, in four to six sessions, Wedekind said.

    In cases in which the child needs some long-term help, such as more intensive mental health treatment, the staff will make recommendations on what to do next.

    Assuming the program wins approval today, the JWB also would conduct research on the effectiveness of the program.

    "Hopefully, we can really offer a model that other people can pick up and repeat in their communities," Wedekind said.

    PEMHS will work in partnership with Directions for Mental Health and the Suncoast Center for Community Mental Health, as well as the school system and Operation Par, which operates the Juvenile Assessment Center where children are taken after being arrested.

    The money budgeted will cover the first year of the program. JWB staff envision the program lasting at least three years and serving 215 children annually by its third year. It has been named the Children's Focused Outreach Program.

    The Times series told the stories of an 8-year-old boy who spent nine days in the Juvenile Detention Center, a 6-year-old boy who was arrested for battery on a law enforcement officer and others. It said that during the most recent fiscal year, 413 children younger than 12 in Pinellas County and 4,575 in Florida had been charged with offenses.

    James Mills, executive director of the JWB, which finances children's programs throughout Pinellas County, said the articles "really got us looking at the whole area of younger kids coming into the juvenile justice system. . . . The further we looked, the more concerned we were."

    Money for the program was available because JWB is no longer funding another PEMHS project.

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