Tampa charity Starting Right, Now has earned acclaim for its tough-love standards and high success rate in getting homeless teenagers on track to succeed. But it was wrong to go to court to seek financial judgments against two young women who violated its rules. Suing the teens it is trying to help sends the wrong message.
The charity's setup is straightforward. Financial aid and supervision help participants, who sign a contract that applies strict rules to many aspects of their lives. Nine times out of 10, they succeed. But since May 2012, the charity has twice sued teens who exited the program. One agreed to repay $3,006 without consulting a lawyer. The charity sued the other teen for $18,245. The charity says the young women are liable for its expenditures on items such as food, rent, electricity, clothing — and even a Christmas tree. Legal action, the charity says, was a last resort after the two women repeatedly broke rules.
Tough standards are good (full disclosure: The Tampa Bay Times Fund has donated to the charity), and there should be consequences for those who can't meet them. But piling $18,000 in claims on a young, at-risk teen the charity was aiming to help is too much. Perhaps this particular case languished too long and the bills got too high. But there is a better way to handle these situations than seeking big judgments against teens who already are in enough hot water.