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Help for troubled teens is hard to find in county

The financial troubles plaguing Plantation Hope, one of the few safe havens in Citrus County for troubled teen-agers, points out the fragile nature of the support network for such youngsters in the county. The Homosassa Springs program, operated by the Rev. Paul Nix and his wife, Linda, almost had to close after falling behind on rent and insurance payments. An anonymous donor stepped forward last month to bail out the program, but the operation is continuing on a month-to-month basis.

Plantation Hope forms one piece of a patchwork quilt of havens available for teens who are either fleeing dangerous situations in Citrus County or who are just passing through, local experts say.

Ginger West of the Family Resource Center in Inverness said there just aren't many options for teens whose home lives are so bad that they think they must run, even without any idea where they are going.

"I don't think there's much of anything," she said. "But there's absolutely no doubt that there are kids living on the streets in Citrus County. I think it's a serious problem if just one is out there."

West said at least a dozen runaways will sleep in abandoned cars, alleys or woods tonight. And some of them will steal to get money for food, she said.

No exact numbers show how many teens are on the run in each county, said Alwyn Cassil, spokeswoman for the Youth and Family Services of the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS).

But HRS statistics show that Florida ranks second to California in the number of teen-age runaways. Florida had 35,000 runaway cases last year.

Sgt. Pat Fisher of the Citrus County Sheriff's Office said more than 300 children in Citrus County ran away from home last year.

Some stay with friends for a time, he said, but that is only temporary in most cases. If they turn to life on the streets and wind up in custody of the Sheriff's Office, they often are delivered to the HRS. The agency can either return the child to his or her home or send the child to live with a relative if the home situation is too volatile.

Cassil said Citrus has no short-term shelters or other places for children to run to. Fisher agrees, noting, "Unlike big cities, we don't have flop houses ... places they can just hang out.

"I look at it as a problem for any kid out on the street," he said. "There are folks out there who will hurt kids, as we all know."

The nearest HRS-approved short-term shelters for runaways are in Ocala and New Port Richey. They are part of statewide network of 23 such shelters.

Plantation Hope is HRS approved, but because Bible studies and prayer are part of the curriculum, it is ineligible for state or federal financing. The program relies on donations plus a $5,000-a-year tuition.

That leaves Arnette House in Ocala and the RAP (Runaway Alternative Program) House in New Port Richey as the strongest options.

Each year, about 30 to 40 runaways from Citrus County land at Arnette House, said David Graham, spokesman for the shelter. That number has stabilized in recent years, he said, but unless more state and federal money is made available, the number could increase in coming years.

Arnette House, which opened in 1981, offers a temporary home for children age 12 to 17. The shelter has 10 beds, but that will double later this summer or fall when the center opens its new facility.

Graham said the home usually runs at about 85 percent occupancy. More than 80 children spent time at Arnette House last year, he said. About 160 at different times of the year were turned away because of lack of space.

"You have all types of children _ some abused in home situations, others what we call "throwaway' children _ the parents aren't concerned about the child and are just looking to get rid of them," Graham said.

Runaways stay about two weeks. Within 24 hours after a child arrives, his or her parents are notified. The runaway can either contact a relative to stay with or enter a foster home.

Citrus County has about 20 such foster homes.

Fred Sanguiliano, now a Pasco County youth services development director, spent more than four years as director of the RAP House.

The 10-bed facility opened in 1982. RAP House typically serves runaways from within a 25-mile radius _ but it gets clients from all over the country and the state.

"Most kids run from something _ not to something," Sanguiliano said, adding that the kids are usually coming from abusive home situations.

RAP House gets 350 to 375 runaways a year. Most are from Pasco. About 90 are from Hernando, and many are from Citrus County, although Sanguiliano couldn't give an exact figure.

RAP House, as is Arnette House, is voluntary. The runaways can leave, but most choose to stay because they came looking for a safe place and "it's not a punishment. These are basically good kids who come from bad situations," he said.

"If they don't get the help they need, they're going to become delinquents, simply because they're living on the streets," Sanguiliano said.

"Every hour a child is on the streets, the chances of becoming a victim of crime _ rape, murder, pornography, drugs _ become greater."

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