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For two years, Violette Gain watched her son descend into a world of heavy drinking and drug abuse, and she feared for his life.

Then she started fearing for her own.

On June 21, the 16-year-old shoved his mother into a wall.

"Come on, b----!," she recalled Eric screaming, his fists clenched in rage. "I'll lay you out flat."

Gain, a 37-year-old single mother, called the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. A deputy lectured her only child. It went in one ear and out the other.

"What it all boils down to," Gain said last week, "is there's nothing you can do about these kids until they beat the living hell out of you."

She is not alone in her fears.

Four other Pasco teenagers ended up in custody or counseling this month after squabbles with their parents turned violent.

One of them, a 14-year-old boy, had begun family counseling just days before a violent struggle with his mother last week. She suffered a broken finger. None of the other parents were hurt.

Police and child welfare workers agree they must curb bellicose behavior before kids begin working their way up the criminal food chain.

The question is how.

While Florida has paid more attention to juvenile crime in recent years, new programs have focused more on punishing youthful offenders than keeping them out of jail in the first place, family advocates and counselors say.

As a result, parents are left fearful and frustrated as they watch their children descend from moody adolescence to the edge of crime.

"We wait for them to become criminals, then we spend all that money keeping them in jail," lamented Pasco Sheriff Lee Cannon.

"If we could concentrate as much on trying to break the cycle, instead of locking them up, we could probably accomplish something," Cannon said.

He ought to know. Last year, the sheriff's office reported 1,164 juvenile arrests _ up 16 percent from the year before. More than four Pasco children are reported as runaways every day.

The state's leading think tank on children's welfare, the Florida Center for Children & Youth, calculates that intensive, community-based counseling for troubled youths would cost $6,700 per child, per year; holding that same child in prison costs $40,000.

Still, the state provides only 14 beds for runaway Pasco youths, and four outpatient counselors, each of whom at any given time must provide some sort of counseling to more than 40 troubled families.

"The taxpayers of Florida have said, "We don't want to spend dollars keeping your child in an expensive treatment program,'

" said Rick Hess, who oversees Youth and Family Alternatives, which provides publicly financed counseling in Pasco County.

So, who's going to be asked to respond?

"We are," Sheriff Cannon said. "The burden increases every year on law enforcement because everybody else is cutting back. Parents know we never close _ and they know we don't cost anything."

For some reason we don't seem to think far enough ahead," he added. "It is so much cheaper, and so much more progressive, to keep kids out of the criminal justice system."

Eric was committed temporarily to Harbor Behavioral Health Care Institute. Doctors then arranged for his transfer to the RAP House, a runaway shelter in Bayonet Point.

Eric was supposed to stay at the RAP House for two weeks. He walked out the second day. The RAP House is a voluntary-in, voluntary-out facility; it cannot force a teen to stay.

Eric is officially a runaway. He stays with friends. His mother won't let him inside her Port Richey apartment. She is legally responsible for her son, but she is afraid of him, too.

The conundrum brings her to tears.

"We parents have to wait until the extreme, extreme scenario happens," Gain said.

"These minor children should not be able to refuse the care they need. Everyone says they need (counseling), and the system can say, "No, we can't force them.' What kind of message is that?

It sends a message to these kids that they have absolute power."

Yearn for "pizazz'

From 1985 to 1993, juvenile crime in Florida soared.

Arrests of youths for murder, rape and robbery increased 63 percent, far outpacing population growth.

Not only were more kids arrested, but crimes committed by children were becoming increasingly violent. In 1993, Florida had the nation's third-highest rate of juvenile arrests for violent crimes; only New York and the District of Columbia were worse.

In October 1994, Florida created a new agency: the Department of Juvenile Justice. It stripped from Florida's social services agency _ Health and Rehabilitative Services _ the job of handling juvenile delinquents.

The thinking was that an agency focused solely on juveniles would be more effective at rehabilitating bad kids, who might otherwise languish in HRS' huge bureaucracy.

The reforms sparked a massive building effort. In its first year, the department opened 757 residential beds and 90 outpatient slots for juvenile offenders. Total detention capacity statewide increased 21 percent, to nearly 6,000.

But police and child care workers said the reforms placed too little emphasis on prevention _ peer counseling, mentoring, family therapy. Ironically, they point out, many children received counseling only after first committing a crime.

"A child does not wake up one morning at age 15 and decide to be explosive or abusive or violent," said Jack Levine, executive director of the Florida Center for Children & Youth, which is based in Tallahassee.

"We wait until tragedy strikes," Levine said. "Then we respond."

Sheriff Cannon agreed. Several years ago, he created a six-person Youth Services Bureau, which oversees a variety of family outreach, drug education and teen mentoring programs, such as Adopt-A-Cop.

"There seems to be a little pizazz, you get legislators' attention, when you scream about juvenile crime," Cannon said. "But there doesn't seem to be much appeal to doing something with these people prior to a crime coming along."

In interviews last week, parents and counselors pointed out that children often act violently three, four or five times before a parent goes to police. Dr. Steven Kanakis, a child psychologist in Pasco and Pinellas counties, said corrective behavior must be instilled in a child "before the age of 5."

"Any child that hits their parent after age 8 _ when you know right from wrong _ has a problem," Kanakis said. "There's something basically wrong in the family that needs to be addressed."

Counselors are insistent that the family must be treated, not just the child.

Hess agrees with many frustrated parents that sometimes behavioral treatment for teens should be involuntary, or forced. But he is wary of abuses, and said involuntary treatment should be limited to "a very small percentage of cases" where parents are threatened with physical danger.

"Involuntary counseling, or forcing children to counseling, is a reaction on the part of the parent, whose opinion is that the total solution is fixing the child," Hess said. "We don't always see it that way. The situation would be better served by the whole family working together, trying to reach a solution."

On their feet

Youth and Family Alternatives, a non-profit group, holds state contracts to provide outpatient counseling to ungovernable and truant children in a seven-county region of Central Florida.

"The department felt like they needed to focus on the deep-end kids first," said Hess, YFA's regional director. "There was a public safety issue involved. But they're gradually moving more into prevention."

Hess' programs are aimed at ungovernable kids _ a runaway house, child and family counseling, classes in parenting and anger management, home follow-ups with teens _ and are the only publicly financed services of their kind in Pasco.

Families pay what they can afford, based on a formula. The RAP shelter, where stays are generally limited to two weeks, is free.

This year, more than 440 kids are expected at the runaway shelter. About 300 families will be served through outpatient services, with each of YFA's four counselors juggling 40 to 45 families at any given time.

The agency, funded by the state, county, United Way and other sources, has a $6.5-million budget this year. Of that, about $850,000 will serve children and families in Pasco.

Currently, it takes two to three weeks to get an appointment. Counselors also don't spend as much time _ generally, 15 weeks maximum _ with clients as they would like. "We have to get people on their feet," Hess said. "Our counselors have to see other people."

Next year, the caseload will worsen.

"We've seen tremendous increases in numbers of young people, and our resources are going to be stretched," he said. "We've got a lot of kids under 6 who are moving toward adolescence. It's going to very much stretch and strain the system as they get older."

That will mean fewer available services for all except the wealthy.

"There isn't much available, unless you have a lot of insurance money, or are independently wealthy," Hess said of the residential services. "For most Floridians, those types of programs don't exist."

His agency works with Pasco County schools and the Sheriff's Office. Those agencies are taking a close look at truancy _ a "gateway" to trouble, Hess says _ as a means to spot troubled kids.

Take 15-year-old Faustine Bonito III, for example.

He arrived at his New Port Richey home in September 1995 _ 90 minutes past his curfew, with Jack Daniels on his breath.

Faustine's father told him to sleep on the porch. The boy called police instead _ and his father was charged with child neglect.

The episode capped a three-year battle by Faustine's parents to get the boy into counseling. He had abused inhalants, alcohol and prescription medicine before dropping out of River Ridge High.

In a Times profile last year, Faustine described how he worked the system. "I can weasel my way out of anything," he said. "They can't keep me in these places."

Charges against Faustine's father were eventually dropped. But Faustine refused to get a job or finish school.

Finally, on Oct. 29 he was arrested for threatening his mother with two screwdrivers during an argument.

Faustine pleaded guilty to the charge of aggravated assault. He ended up in the adult criminal system, just as his parents had feared.

On Monday, they will ask a judge to treat Faustine, now 16, as a juvenile, which would qualify him for treatment at a Pasco facility. The state will oppose the request.

"The whole system is screwed up," Faustine's mother, Anne Bonito, said last week. "Everybody tries to pass the buck."

The warning signs

Is your teen headed for trouble? Child counselors offer these warning signs for parents:

Rapidly declining school grades.

Missing more than 30 days from school because of truancy or illness.

Separating from family.

Sudden changes in friends, dress or attitude.

Having no adults with whom they interact positively.

No involvement in community, church or social activities.

Source: Youth and Family Alternatives (1996)

Where to call for help

General information

YOUTH AND FAMILY ALTERNATIVES: east Pasco, (352) 521-1463; west Pasco, (813) 841-4166

CHILDREN AND FAMILY SERVICES: east Pasco, (352) 521-1200; west Pasco, (813) 841-4143

Alcohol and drug abuse

AL-ANON/ALCOHOL FAMILY GROUPS: east Pasco, (800) 344-2666; west Pasco, (813) 846-4990

HARBOR BEHAVIORAL HEALTH CARE INSTITUTE: east Pasco, (352) 521-1474; west Pasco, (813) 841-4439

Other sources of help

PASCO COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE: east Pasco, (352) 521-5100; central Pasco, (813) 996-6982; west Pasco, (813) 847-5878

Pasco County treatment facilities

Referrals from law enforcement, health-care professionals or school counselors required:

HARBOR CHILDREN'S CRISIS STABILIZATION UNIT: A 20-bed crisis center off Little Road in New Port Richey; the only secured facility for troubled teens in Pasco County. Children ages 5 to 17 can be held here temporarily if they pose a danger to themselves or others. East Pasco, (352) 521-1474; west Pasco, (813) 841-4439

HARBOR ACADEMY: An unsecured residential facility on Trouble Creek Road in New Port Richey. It has 15 beds and a variety of inpatient and outpatient treatment programs for adolescents with alcohol or drug-abuse programs. East Pasco, (352) 521-1474; west Pasco, (813) 841-4439

THE HARBOR'S MANDALA ADOLESCENT RESIDENTIAL CENTER: An unsecured outpatient program off Little Road in New Port Richey. It is for 12- to 17-year-olds who have committed crimes and are inside the juvenile justice system. East Pasco, (352) 521-1474; west Pasco, (813) 841-4439

THE RAP HOUSE (RUNAWAY ALTERNATIVE PROGRAM): A short-term, unsecured residential center on Wild Cat Lane in Bayonet Point. It has 10 beds for runaways and four emergency shelter beds for Health and Rehabilitative Services. Counselors help children ages 10 through 17. Phone: (813) 856-5601

CHARTER HOSPITAL: A private, outpatient facility on U.S. 19 in Holiday. It has a number of programs for adolescents with substance-abuse problems. Phone: (813) 934-6094

_ Times researcher John Martin and information from Times files contributed to this report.