Can't go home

December 23, 2007

When safety concerns forced the closing in October of a state shelter for youths in trouble with the law, officials had to scramble to find new placements for a dozen teenagers. At least half of them needed to be detained, but the other six were in shelter care simply because no parent or family member was able or willing to take them home.

This happens often - too often - and at a cost to the child and the taxpayers.

As the state Department of Juvenile Services shut down the Maryland Youth Residence Center in Baltimore, 69 youths were in shelter care across the state and 17 of them - more than 20 percent - were there because they had nowhere else to go. That's no reason to keep young people detained; studies have shown that children fare much better at home than in institutional care.

But often the state has no choice. From July through October, the state had to hold about 238 kids in shelter care because no one would pick them up after police arrested them for breaking the law, state data show. It's a glaring example of the need for families to be an integral part of resolving cases in the juvenile justice system.

The problem of holding kids who have nowhere to go occurs most frequently in Baltimore, and usually when a youngster has gotten into trouble late in the evening, officials say. Sometimes it's simply that a parent has no way to pick up a child. That's easily resolved: Juvenile workers could give a teenager bus fare or drive him home. Other times, though, they can't persuade a relative or adult to take charge of a disruptive youth.

And when their pleas fall on deaf ears, juvenile workers are forced to find a shelter bed for the boy or girl - but it's rarely for one night. On average, a child remains in shelter care for 11 days at a cost of $274 to $480 a day at a state-run shelter. Private shelters are considerably less at $78 a day.

Either way, the money would be better spent helping families cope with their troubled teens. Intervention does pay off. The Community Family Resource Center, a DJS-funded program at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, has helped return 174 of 218 kids to their families over three months.

A similar family-focus approach has had success in Baltimore County. It relies on intensive individual and family counseling and weekly contacts with a caseworker. Kids who qualify for a group home are instead referred by DJS to the county program, and the cost savings is plowed back into the program to serve more kids. That's using tax dollars wisely and to greater benefit for young people.

It may seem unfathomable that parents would purposefully leave a child in the state's care. But if a single mom can't leave smaller children home alone or she is working nights, it may take a day or two to resolve. There are parents who refuse to bring a child home because they are afraid for the safety of other family members. Or they can't cope and, in a fit of frustration, use the state to teach their child a lesson.

Granted, for teenagers whose parents are unwell or unfit or just plain missing, a state shelter may be the only home they will know. But it should be a home of last resort.

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