Helping homeless youth

Task force splitting into focus groups; more participants welcome

A teenager who was kicked out of his mother’s home for being gay and later threatened with violence to himself and anyone who helps him.

An angry, runaway teenage girl who has been seen late at night behind downtown buildings searching for food in trash cans and possibly using drugs. School officials have never met her mother.

A socially awkward boy who was homeschooled by an illiterate mother until he attended high school. He only shows interest in learning when snacks are involved. His mother overdosed on heroin, and he was left to fend for himself.

These are the students the Brown County Homeless Teen Task Force is working to help, and others in need of guidance.

Patricia Krahnke, who led the Feb. 25 meeting along with Larry Hanson, provided the above scenarios, based on students she knows about from working in the high school.

Task force members split into groups: Fundraising, LGBT support, homework tutoring, basic needs, spiritual counseling, mental/emotional health and addictions, emergency shelter, identifying at-risk students, and planning and coordination.

She asked each group how they would help and note any assistance they are lacking.

In all three scenarios, the Department of Child Services should have been called, said Brown County DCS Director Harmony Gist.

But no one made that call.

Students, especially teenagers, may want to avoid DCS out of fear of having to leave the county, having to live with people they do not know or getting their parents in trouble with the law.

“They just want to get by and get through the whole thing. That’s one reason they sleep in the woods, one reason they hide,” said Ken Harker, a retired corporate lawyer who sat in on the planning and coordination group.

“I very much want to emphasize that yes, it’s scary. We do have the authority to remove them … but the whole point of the agency is to help, to keep the family intact, to reunite the family and to rehabilitate,” Gist said.

“I know the stigma and the scariness. A lot of these kids are going to view us that way because their parents have said, ‘You don’t talk to them.’ I know that. I get that.”

But if teens don’t get involved with DCS, they are more likely to fall through the cracks, because the agency is unable to find the evidence it needs to intervene and help, Gist said.

Families needed

One issue DCS faces in Brown County is not having enough foster families with whom children could be placed if evidence of abuse is found at home.A child can be placed into a family member’s home, a home of someone they’ve known for years, or into a foster family.“We’re at an all-time crisis high,” Gist about the need for foster families.

Foster parents can specify that they only want to bring Brown County teens into their homes, Gist said.

She pledged to provide more information about DCS services including what the agency does, what happens after an intervention, how concerned citizens or children can contact DCS for help and how to become a foster parent.

Gist encouraged everyone to call the DCS hotline at 1-800-800-5556 when they find a child who is homeless or being abused.

She also urged the task force to create a professional representative for the group to whom she could give updates on a child who has been reported to the hotline.

Setting goals

Amanda Kinnaird from Centerstone mental health services suggested the task force create an emergency shelter for homeless youth and a list of resources already available in the county.

“Once we got that, there could be a ton of different ideas to entertain that could really be more grassroots initiative. We have lots of different options here, but one focused goal would be a really good way to go,” she said.

Kinnaird spoke about the services available at Centerstone that could help the students in the scenarios. But counseling requires parental consent, unless the student is being treated for substance abuse, she said.

Church of the Lakes Pastor Jon Lucas volunteered to offer counseling or at least a “listening ear,” and said he wants to create a network of pastors to do the same.

The basic needs team began identifying existing agencies that can help students with hygiene, food and clothing needs, including the backpack program, God’s Grace, The Salvation Army and Community Closet.

Chuck Wills, for the fundraising team, said grants could be an option, but the task force first needs to identify its goal, such as creating an emergency shelter.

Student to student

Rusty Riley, a senior at Brown County High School, suggested creating an outreach program at the high school.Over the summer, Riley said he was kicked out of the home he was living in and had to “couch surf” for a week and a half before he found a home with Bob Young.Riley said a team of students could set up a table at lunch, hand out flyers or go to students they know who are homeless, to let them know there are others who know what they’re going through.

“A lot of these students don’t think anybody is there for them. It’s getting these students to know that we’re going to make sure somebody is there for you and you have somebody in the school to talk to,” Riley said.

The next task force meeting will be Thursday, March 10 at 5:30 p.m. downstairs at the Brown County Public Library.