Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Plan Gives Disconnected Kids Link to Adulthood

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Plan Gives Disconnected Kids Link to Adulthood

Article excerpt

Byline: SUSAN D. BRANDENBURG, Times-Union correspondent

While the holidays are often a time for loved ones to come together, that's not the case for every family.

Some may be dealing with a disconnected child -- what youth advocates call a "chronic runaway."

"They can't go back home because they have run from unbearable family situations," said Pam Morgan, vice president of corporate development for the Youth Crisis Center in Jacksonville. "We call them the forgotten kids. The majority of these kids are high school dropouts in their late teens who have been in and out of the juvenile system most of their lives."

According to Morgan, state and federal officials are beginning to recognize the need to help this nebulous "generation of misfits."

"Once they turn 18, the disconnected kids undergo a true 'disconnect' from the system," she said. "They are adjudicated adults, but they are not. They have no foundation for survival. They are the ones who turn to crime and eventually become a drain on society."

In recent years, youth advocates have been forced to change their focus from prevention to intervention, added Morgan, "and we've seen an alarming increase in chronic runaways who turn 18 and, by law, are no longer eligible for our services."

In response to rising state and national awareness of the plight of disconnected youths, the YCC is seeking funding to establish a New Life Center on property adjacent to its shelter on Parental Home Road.

"The New Life Center will serve youth, 18 and older, providing them with the tools necessary to become productive citizens," Morgan said. "We must stop this self-perpetuating cycle. Many of the chronic runaways of today are the sons and daughters of those disconnected kids who turned 18 and went back on the streets 30 years ago."

According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, if society doesn't intervene effectively with disconnected kids, about $374 billion annually will likely be spent to incarcerate youths in detention systems; provide additional police protection; and assist youths and families who are dealing with substance abuse, violence, teen pregnancy, nutrition, and school failure.

"In the 30 years we've been rescuing kids from the streets and doing all we could to reunite them with their families, there have always been those children who could not return home," Morgan said.

That's where Special Needs Assistance Program comes in, she noted.

"Our shelter provides a safe place for disconnected kids, ages 10 to 17. We have 22 beds, but they are not enough."

In the 12 months ended last June, the Youth Crisis Center offered food, clothing, shelter and counseling services to 1,624 runaways in Duval, Clay, Nassau and St. Johns counties.

In spite of legislative budget cuts that have eliminated several of their outreach and prevention programs, Brenda Frinks, the YCC's outreach director, notes parents have always been the most powerful runaway deterrent. …

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