By PATRICIA KRAHNKE, guest columnist
It has been an eye-opening year for many of us who are members of the Brown County Homeless Teen Task Force.
We have seen firsthand the deeply challenging struggles of families and children. Guardian Ad Litem, Centerstone, the legal system and the Department of Child Services have been invaluable in the information they have shared with us. The work they do here is enormous and overwhelming, and their efforts are often truly heroic.
As we begin a new chapter in helping our homeless teens, here’s what’s on my mind.
We have seen over and over how parents’ stories are believed and children aren’t allowed to speak. When children do try to make themselves heard against abuses — physical, emotional and psychological — they are the ones who get in trouble, in the home, in courtroom and in the community.
When they are told to “get the hell out” of the family home, the children are charged with delinquency — they wander, with no idea of where to go, then get picked up by law enforcement and placed in a shelter in another county where they do not have access to their jobs or their schooling.
Many, many parents are mentally unstable, either from their experience with abuse or from drug use, the latter of which is projected to continue worsening in our community. Adolescents are often a mess, as should be expected.
Some kids recognize when they are being abused. But when they fight back, they are the ones who get in trouble.
Children in our community have heard a rumor of the existence of our task force. Those of us who work in the schools are often the first to know of a child’s distress.
Sometimes we know the student and the family and their challenges. Sometimes it’s a random, unknown child showing up in our classroom, hemming and hawing, looking for a way to communicate their distress to someone they have heard may have an answer.
We often wonder: How many more wonderful children with shining spirits fighting to survive and enormous life potential are trapped in homes that abuse them or don’t feed them or care for them in important ways?
Over the past year, we were able to identify support pathways for children once they are in the system. Over several cases, we’ve seen those pathways work. But we’ve also seen some fail.
Where does a child turn when they are in distress? A police officer in Brown County told me, “Children have no rights. Parents can do whatever they want to punish their children.” So I no longer refer to law enforcement children who reach out to me through social media or in the school.
There are agencies in our community that do a good job with children and families once they are in the system. But we have found there is a gaping hole in our ability to serve our at-risk children: immediate access to shelter and care while the system revs up on the student’s behalf and tries to do its work.
This hole is one that the Homeless Teen Task Force is committed to filling in 2017. We will work this year to establish a shelter for at-risk children, so they have a place where they will be welcomed at the door without judgment of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religious beliefs or behavior when they have been kicked out, abandoned or run away.
Children are our most precious natural resource. We owe it to our children to be there for them — and for their parents — at their darkest, most confusing, most frightening moments.
We have a fantastic group of people committed to making this happen over the next year, with much research being conducted presently on what makes a successful youth shelter program.
If you are not currently a member of the task force and would like to be part of this initiative or support it in any way, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 812-219-6001.
Our meeting to kick off this project will be Wednesday, Jan. 18 at 6 p.m. at the Brown County Inn. Please join us.
Patricia Krahnke is a co-chairwoman of the Homeless Teen Task Force.