For Runaway Girls, a House That's a Home

Harbinger House in Massachusetts affords a caring alternative to the streets for teenage girls in flight from troubled home lives

HIGH on a hill along a winding neighborhood street sits a spacious, three-story white house with an inviting front porch. Inside, three teenage girls are in the kitchen preparing sandwiches for their lunch. As they get out jars of peanut butter and marshmallow fluff, they chat and laugh easily.

While it may seem like home for these girls, the house is just a temporary stopping place. Called Harbinger House, it is a 45-day transition home for troubled teenage girls who need time to sort out their lives.

Some girls here were victims of physical or sexual abuse. Others have left a home atmosphere involving alcoholism or drugs. Or some may be teenagers on the run who come from places as far away as Florida.

But during their stay at Harbinger House, the girls enjoy a clean, caring atmosphere. The program accommodates up to eight girls from ages 13 to 18.

The shelter is just one part of a larger nonprofit human-service agency called Wayside Community Programs Inc., based in Framingham, Mass. Funded by a combination of private and government grants, Harbinger House provides these troubled teens with an array of social services including family counseling, an in-house education program, and a supportive home environment.

Young women are referred to Harbinger House from different sources including schools, courts, parents, hospitals, and the state. The teens come from a variety of economic and cultural backgrounds as well. Some are from single-parent families, while others may be from middle-class two-parent families. But most have missed out in some way on the love and attention they need from a caring family environment, says Sandy Caprone, Harbinger House director.

Despite their misfortunes, these young people all share a sense of hope for the future, Ms. Caprone says. "[Unlike older age groups], they're not cold to the world. There's still that trust."

Many of these teens have had disciplinary problems at school or have "acted out" their unhappiness or frustrations in some way. But high standards and mutual respect help them learn to cope with authority, Caprone says.

"We have high expectations for kids. We expect them to be in control. If the expectations are clear and high in the beginning, kids will rise to that," she says.

Karen (not her real name), 15, has been staying here for more than four weeks. She came because she was not getting along with her mother, who is struggling with the demands of being a single parent. Karen hopes to return to her mom soon and start classes at a new school. She is pleased with Harbinger House.

"It seems sort of like a safe house," Karen says. "Nobody can get to you and you can't get to anybody. Nothing can really go wrong. Everything goes right."

Donna Morrison, family resource supervisor at the Framingham Department of Social Services, says her office is seeing an increase in the number of teens trying to cope with unhappy home situations.

"The need is increasing ... and not just for girls. We have a very high need for placement of boys," she says. "Families are under a lot more stress. [Parents] could have been laid off from a job, because a company could have closed or relocated."

Child-welfare advocates say the US is seeing an increasing number of troubled teenagers in need of individualized care. These kids may have been physically or sexually abused and may have lived on the streets for long periods of time, says Sister Mary Rose McGeady, president of Covenant House International in New York, a program that runs shelters for street children in New York City and cities around the world.

"The easier cases are decreasing and the difficult, more complicated cases are increasing," she says.

Such teens benefit from the individualized attention of a place like Harbinger House, says Yitzhak Bakal, director the North American Family Institute, a national organization based in Danvers, Mass., that provides care for troubled juveniles and consultation to youth and family-service organizations.

"These shelters are considered to be an extremely important strategy in working with these kinds of youth," Mr. Bakal says. "The fact that [Harbinger House] is small is ... good because if it's a large shelter - and there are many around the country that are large - it becomes institutionalized. And this [program] will ensure some kinds of individual approach."

The Harbinger House program moved to its current location last September from a more urban, noisier section of Framingham. Staff members say the teens enjoy this quiet neighborhood home. Across the street is a lake the girls enjoy for ice skating in the winter or swimming in the summer.

A tour through the house reveals a clean and warm atmosphere. Downstairs, rooms are decorated with colorful floral curtains and decorative house plants. An education room features four MacIntosh computers for the girls to use as study aids. In the living room, the girls can watch TV or movies on the VCR. Upstairs, they sleep in tidy, spacious bedrooms.

Many young women at Harbinger House have benefited from the caring atmosphere here. Beth (not her real name), 17, looks like any normal teenager with her long, light brown hair, casual sweater, and blue jeans. But she was hospitalized for depression due to a home situation. Her mother died when she was very young and her father became abusive and alcoholic.

Upon her release from the hospital, she was transferred to Harbinger House.

With an easy smile, she tells of her dream of becoming a police officer one day so she can "protect the innocent" and help those who most need it, she says. "I've seen in my life too many moments when people have been hurt and put down," she says.

Beth likes the individual attention she receives at Harbinger House. "Here I'm a person and every staff person here knows my first and last name," she says. "You really feel like a human being, like you matter."

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