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Parents' pain prompts support group

Published Oct. 8, 2005

When I interviewed Janet and Gene Sussman for a column in early June, tears frequently glimmered in their eyes when they talked about their son, Jarrad. The pain and frustration they were feeling was raw and unconcealed.

Jarrad, then 13, had driven his parents to distraction. They had watched the affectionate little boy they knew so well become a rebellious stranger who seemed intent on tormenting them.

There was the night he disappeared from his bedroom. His parents spent panicked hours searching before finding him with some buddies in a boarded-up waterfront home in north Pinellas County. The house had been vandalized and used as a hangout. Police carried Jarrad away in handcuffs, charged with burglary.

More trouble followed: fighting at school, skipping school, smoking cigarettes, sneaking out of the house. There were trips to the Juvenile Detention Center, days in court, visits to counselors and social workers, transfers from one school to another.

The Sussmans weren't eager to share their personal pain with the world. It was just that they hoped to find other parents to talk to _ perhaps to form a support group of distressed parents of troubled children. And after two years of navigating those treacherous channels with their own son, they wanted to share what they had learned with other parents for whom the experience was fresh and frightening. Parents in that situation "are so confused," Janet said then. "You are just finding out that this is not your little baby anymore."

Janet and Gene were amazed by the response to their story. The phone started ringing at 11 a.m. on the day the column was published, Gene said, and now, five months later, the Sussmans still are getting calls. The calls have come from as far away as Indiana, they said. People cut out the column, put it on their refrigerator doors and waited for that desperate moment when they needed someone to help them. People in Pinellas County sent the column to friends and relatives out of state, knowing they were trying to cope with problem children.

The Sussmans have spent hours on the phone with sobbing parents who had nowhere else to turn. There was the mother who called after her daughter hit her over the head with a bowl. There was the single parent who refused to give her child $10 and found her kitchen cabinets destroyed by her vengeful teen. There were parents whose children disappeared for days at a time.

"We felt lucky when we started hearing other people's stories," said Janet, who is director of catering at the Safety Harbor Spa. Gene is a manager at Little Caesar's Pizza. They have two other children younger than Jarrad.

The response they got convinced them that there was an enormous need for support and information for parents. They began work on incorporating a non-profit organization. Assuming Warner Bros. approves, they will name the group Forever Young, for the Rod Stewart song about children growing up and going away. It will be a support group that also offers referrals to programs that can help troubled children and their parents.

They hope the paperwork will be completed and the support group will hold its first meeting by the end of November. Meanwhile, Janet and Gene have been busy visiting agencies to learn what the agencies offer and meeting with counselors who can refer clients to the support group.

But they didn't want paperwork delays to prevent them from helping teenagers now. The couple arranged an alliance with Pinellas Habitat for Humanities, which uses volunteers to build houses for low-income people. Habitat already had a youth program for youths from dozens of churches in the Tampa Bay area. The Sussmans wanted Habitat also to accept teens who had been through juvenile court and sentenced to community service.

Thinking that building a house for poor people would be much more rewarding work than picking up trash along a roadside or doing filing for a charitable organization, Janet and Gene met with Pinellas juvenile judges and asked them to send adjudicated youths to Habitat. The judges, who in Pinellas County face an average of more than 700 new cases per month, were enthusiastic, Janet said.

On Friday the National Association of Catering Executives will hold its annual fund-raiser _ in this case a masquerade ball _ in Clearwater. The association has named Habitat to receive the profits from the fund-raiser so the youth program can be expanded.

"We expected obstacles, but people have just opened their arms to us," Janet said.

They may have missed an opportunity for help from one really important person. They had written to President Clinton about their plans. One night while they were out, their son answered the telephone and heard someone say, "Are your parents in? This is the White House calling." Whoever was calling wouldn't leave a phone number, saying it was "a secure line." The White House didn't call back, much to the chagrin of all the Sussmans.

The last few months have been a revelation for Janet and Gene.

"We know now that this is why we were put on this earth," Janet said. "We have become so obsessed and so excited with this."

It also has been a time of change for Jarrad, now 14. Janet and Gene took Jarrad with them when they went to meetings with agencies and individuals and asked his advice about plans for Forever Young.

"I see him taking a lot of responsibility now for his previous actions," Gene said. "Other kids are looking up to him now. We don't want to get cocky _ we take one day at a time _ but he's earned our trust. He makes curfew most of the time now or at least calls."

"He seems to care about how we feel now," Janet added, "and seems to appreciate the relationship. I think he regrets what he did."

Anyone who wants to help the Sussmans with their plans, or who just needs to talk about trouble with their own teens, may call them at 942-2401.

Diane Steinle is editor of editorials for the Times' North Pinellas editions.