OUT OF `THE SYSTEM' AND ONTO THE STREETS
(Page 2 of 3)
At any one time, at least 25,000 kids aged 12 through 17 are on the streets in California, says Jed Emerson, director of the Larkin Street center. More than 1,500 of them roam in San Francisco, but the city's 40 shelter beds for youth are seldom filled. Reaching these kids, bringing them back from the edge of oblivion, can be a herculean task, he says.Skip to next paragraph
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``Most of the kids we see have been hurt, and I mean really damaged,'' he says. ``They don't trust the system, and they certainly don't trust adults.''
In the past, social-service agencies in the city have squabbled over which one will serve this most troubled group of kids.
The child-welfare system says it can't find group homes or foster homes that will take these teens. The probation department says the kids are not candidates for juvenile hall because they are more victims than criminals. Mental-health services say the kids' emotional problems can't be treated until their drug-abuse problems are resolved. Substance-abuse clinics are overcrowded, and there is no detoxification facility especially for adolescents in the city.
No agency in the system has the extra resources or the inclination to work with this most troubled group of youngsters, Mr. Emerson says, noting that the problem extends beyond San Francisco.
``We pay a cost for letting our kids go like this, as a country,'' he says. ``There's a certain moral de-struction at work, and it eats at a society internally.''
In some cities, such as San Francisco and Portland, the help that does exist is a remarkable network of privately run youth shelters; drop-in centers; counseling and medical services; and longer-term residential programs designed to aid kids who can't go home.
Most get some federal, state, or local funding, but a sizable chunk of their support comes from private donors, such as churches, businesses, and volunteers. Nonetheless, they are usually scrapping for money, particularly to add more beds in costly but effective residential programs.
A recent study casts a shadow on the premise that runaways should always be sent home as soon as possible. A University of Connecticut survey at a Toronto shelter concluded that 86 percent of runaways there had been physically or sexually abused at home - a much higher proportion than expected.
``I know for a fact that most of my kids are never going to go home,'' Emerson says. ``This is not `Huckleberry Finn.' Sixty-eight percent of the time parents won't even come in to talk about reunification. We call them, but they say: `You've got him, you keep him.'''
MEET Shannon, 16. One spring evening in Boston, the doe-eyed blonde found herself on the street, duffel bag in hand. Shannon (not her real name) had been kicked out by her heroin-addicted mother.
Shannon's history is a rocky one. Her parents separated when she was a preschooler, she saw her mother's hypodermic needle when she was 6, and she started running away from home at age 11. Shannon also became an addict - to PCP (pentachlorophenol), codeine, Valium, marijuana. And she started shoplifting in department stores.
It wasn't long before the girl came to the attention of the child welfare probation departments. After several years of receiving special services that enabled her to live at home, she finally told them of her mother's addiction.
Once, after ``Ma beat the ___ out of me just before Thanksgiving,'' Shannon says, she was placed in a foster home where drug use was also occurring. Her love for her mother would eventually draw her home.
The night Shannon was kicked out, she heard that a friend from Alcoholics Anonymous had died. Shannon had been going to AA and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and she'd been clean for five months. Upset, she confronted her mother about her heroin addiction - only to find herself out on the street.
Shannon has had several social workers and probation officers over the years, but none was available to help her that night. Desperate, she telephoned Bridge Over Troubled Waters. Worker Maura Pensak drove over and picked her up. Shannon now lives with other former street kids in a house run by Bridge staff, and she and her mother are in family counseling.
``It's clear that Shannon's mom was abusing heroin, and it's clear that Shannon was being neglected,'' Ms. Pensak says. ``But she was being just as neglected in [the child welfare agency] as she was in her home. Her social worker had left and no one had been reassigned to her case, until we called up and started demanding it.''