TOWN 'N COUNTRY — The call came in to authorities around 5 p.m. on a recent Wednesday. A 14-year-old had disappeared the night before, and her parents were worried.
It's a constant refrain for Hillsborough County Deputy Danielle Spencer. "We get a lot of runaways," said Spencer, who has patrolled the Town 'N Country area for three years. "Those come by the dozens."
Town 'N Country used to be considered a sleepy suburb of northwest Hillsborough, but in recent years the area has changed into one of the most problematic regions for law enforcement.
Largely fueled by a changing family dynamic and lack of resources, community members and authorities point to juvenile delinquency as a major contributor to the area's problems.
While major crimes here dropped 1 percent from 2008 to 2009, the area still ranked highest in unincorporated Hillsborough for rapes and burglary arrests — 26 and 833 respectively — according to data provided by the Sheriff's Office.
The area ranked second in arrests for assault, vandalism, DUI and drug offenses.
Aside from juvenile delinquency, another reason behind the big numbers is likely the fact that Town 'N Country is one of the county's larger communities. While it used to be predominantly homeowners, the area has become more transient with more rental and commercial properties.
"You have more and more kids out there who don't have strong parent figures out there," Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee said. "It's tough if a parent is raising three children and having to work 55 or 60 hours a week. More children get exposed to bad influences and don't have respect for adults or authorities."
Deputy Spencer knows this all too well.
• • •
Calls to the Sheriff's Office from worried parents usually spike around 5 p.m. when they realize their child hasn't arrived home from school, Spencer said.
And this day is no different.
She arrives at the home on June Street where the missing 14-year-old lives. She asks the girl's mother a bevy of questions from the description of her daughter's clothes to a list of friends' names.
The teen, a Webb Middle School student, is a repeat runaway. The Times is not naming her because of her age.
Spencer leaves and finds the girl's best friend, who is also a repeat runaway. The friend's mother, Suzie Sparks, is at a loss for solutions.
"Spring break is coming on and I can't stay home seven days a week," said Sparks, who is taking computer courses to improve her skills for employment. "I don't know what to do."
Spencer gets no conclusive information about the missing girl's whereabouts. The next stop is the Town 'N Country Regional library, where the missing teen often hangs out.
Community members worked for years ago to get the state-of-the-art library built at 7606 Paula Drive. It finally opened in late 2008. But amid its youth programs, playground and other amenities for adults and teens, the library has become a hotbed for truancy, said Spencer.
A lack of recreational services contributes to the problem, said Jack Feinberg, clinical director for Phoenix House's Florida region. Phoenix House, on Waters Avenue, provides counseling and recreation to area teenagers.
"This is a service poor area, which is one reason we opened up and were full right away," Feinberg said. "For some reason, the social service agencies tend to cluster in the eastern part of the county. It's very frustrating for families in this area who need the help.
Sheriff Gee agrees. "Boys and Girls Clubs and YMCAs are a good deal for everybody," Gee said, and places like Brandon and Town 'N Country need them.
• • •
Finding no leads at the library, Spencer heads to the home of a teenage boy who is friends with the missing girl. The neighborhood, off Hanley Road, has fences and speed limit signs marked with graffiti gang tags.
Law enforcement uses the word "gangs" loosely to describe "a bunch of kids coming up with their own name and wearing colors," said Spencer. But they are certain that the groups do commit crime in the area, including home invasions and drug sales.
The "TNC Boyz," "Legacy" and "Drack" are among the most prevalent gangs around here, Spencer said.
Alex Benjamin has seen the problem with juvenile crime escalate firsthand. (His home is technically in the Leto area, which many people associate as being part of Town 'N Country, although U.S. Census records and the Times' data designate it as a separate area to the east.)
Benjamin recalls a few cars being stolen and some "wannabe gangs," when he moved into his home 17 years ago. Months ago he started to see teens breaking into homes and physically threatening his neighbors.
"That's when I said, 'Wait a minute, what's next?' " Benjamin recalled. Six months ago he joined the sheriff's citizen patrol unit. Volunteers drive deputy cars and patrol the neighborhood 12 hours a month.
If they spot a problem, they call it in to deputies.
"We know we're making a difference because we've gotten in areas where something was happening," Benjamin said. "And when the deputies come in, they often find guns and drugs."
Some Town 'N Country residents say they feel safe in their neighborhood. "I walk my dog at 11 at night and I would let my wife do it," said Bill Brown, a trustee on the Town 'N Country Park subdivision board.
The number of arrests is an indication that authorities are doing their job, Brown said.
• • •
It's around 8 p.m. and, after few leads, Spencer returns to the missing girl's home. She learns that the teen has called her mother to say she'd be returning soon. Another runaway case is just about closed, but for Spencer it does little to relieve the bigger problem.
"She's already hanging with the wrong people, so she's more susceptible to doing other kinds of crime," Spencer says.
Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 335-4115.