Program offers rays of hope for troubled youth, families

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Saturday, April 24, 2010

The teen was withdrawn and depressed.

She was dealing with family issues—including a death—and had considered running away.

When the 15-year-old sought help at school, the social worker referred her to the Runaway and Youth Services program at Lutheran Social Services.

"The social worker was very worried about her," said Cerissa Wills, children youth and family program supervisor/in-home family therapist for Lutheran Social Services.

Wills took on the teen as a client.

"There were a lot of issues, including verbal fighting, between family members," Wills said.

The girl suffered low self-esteem and trouble controlling her anger.

"She'd bottle it up and explode," Wills said.

Not anymore.

Since getting Runaway and Youth Services counseling, the girl has learned to control her anger, she said.

"I go for a walk, count back from 100, scream into a pillow or rip paper up," the girl said.

She writes in a diary to journal her days.

Runaway and Youth Services is for Rock County youth age 11 to 17 and their families. It's intended to keep kids from running away through early intervention and prevention, Wills said.


Janesville police in 2009 reported 256 runaways, the fewest since 2004, and if the first quarter of 2010 is an indicator, the number of runaways will be down again this year in Janesville.

But Wills isn't sure fewer kids are leaving home. She attributes the drop in runaway numbers to children who are couch surfing or house hopping and not getting reported as runaways.

"We have heard from parents and teens lately that children running away are finding different places to live—with friends and other family members—going from house to house rather than running away on the streets. We're finding a lot of parents are not necessarily reporting these," she said.

That's why Wills wasn't surprised to learn the National Suicide and Runaway hotlines reported a 15 percent rise in calls in 2009 over 2008 with a prediction that child abuse, runaways and suicides will continue to increase.


"In 2010, we have seen a 50 percent increase in referrals that we are contributing, in part, to economic crisis in Rock County. We have a consistent waiting list throughout the year of approximately eight clients," Wills said.

Last year was the first year LSS noticed a wait list, Wills said.

"We are seeing and increase in parent referrals and referrals for whole families versus individuals," Wills said.

She's worried the number of runaways will continue to increase.

"People are struggling with so many stressors, and teens are turning to drugs a lot more," she said.

Lack of communication between the parent and teen, pressure at school and connections made through the Internet can be factors in convincing children to run away, Wills said.

"Teens have a different way of communicating now with technology that some parents aren't up to date with," she said.

So parents need to get on their level, talk and listen. It's important to know as much as possible about your teen, including where they are, where they are going and what they are doing in their room and on the computer, Wills said.

"The big message we send parents of teens, who are approaching their independence and trying to become autonomous, is it's not so much about controlling; it's more about influencing them and opening up communication,” she said.

Another tip for parents is to become friends with their kids on Facebook.

But most of all, Wills said, parents shouldn't give up on their teens.

"They're trying to figure out who they are and their place in this world, too, and for their parents to say, ‘You do whatever you want,' is not going to help. They need to be guided," she said.

Solving the problem

"Sometimes it's helpful to have an outsider come in, step back and look at the situation. Sometimes when families are in the midst of the issue, it's hard to pinpoint barriers. That's what we're here for," Wills said.

Runaway and Youth Services provides 10 free counseling sessions with a master's degree-level therapist and graduate-level intern. Sessions can be at school, at home or at another community location.

"We eliminate transportation and financial barriers that are often a cause for treatment failure for teens," Wills said.

Runaway and Youth Services gives youth and their families a 24-hour crisis hotline.

The local high school social worker who referred the 15-year-old girl to Runaway and Youth Services praised the program.

"I think it's fabulous. People who work there are so good with kids," she said.

She said students involved with Lutheran Social Services seem more at ease.

"You can see more of a comfort level with them. And they're also more willing to look for solutions other than running way," the social worker said.

Runaway and Youth Services "opens more doors for them to realize there are more opportunities to help them problem solve," she said.

The teen still is in Runaway and Youth Services counseling.

"I'm a good kid, have a 3.0 grade-point average,” she said. "It kept me from running away and helped me stay out of trouble."


Signs a teen might be considering running away from home include:

-- Changes in behaviors or patterns—Teens who suddenly stop eating or begin to overeat, sleep all day or never sleep, spend all their time with friends or never want to leave their room. Sudden mood swings mean teens are unsettled and restless. They're not coping well with stress.

-- Rebellious behavior—Dropping grades, truancy, breaking rules at home, picking fights with the family all are symptoms that your child is having problems.

-- Disclosure of intentions to run away—Some teens will hint they want to run away and some will outright threaten their family with running. Sometimes their family will hear rumors through friends, school, or other parents that their child is thinking of leaving home.

-- Accumulation of money and possessions—To survive, runaways need money and resources. Some runaways prepare for their run by slowly withdrawing cash from their savings accounts. Keeping a bag or backpack of clothes in the closet might mean they are waiting to make a quick escape.

-- What to do—Clearly and calmly let your teen know you are concerned about them and their behavior makes you afraid they might run away from home. Invite them to talk with you or someone else. Let them know you don't want them to run away and you're committed to helping the family work things out. If your teen is intent on running away, give them the phone number of the National Runaway Switchboard so they can find safe options while out on their own.

Source: Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, Runaway and Youth Services

Tips for communicating with your teen include:


-- Show Interest.

-- Ask questions if you don't understand.

-- Express empathy. Remember, in their world this really is a crisis.

-- Listen, don't just hear. Silence is OK.

-- Use eye contact and good nonverbal cues.

-- Eliminate barriers—turn off the phones and televisions if you need to.

-- Agree to disagree.

-- Plan a time to talk if schedules are busy.


-- Argue.

-- Interrupt.

-- Pass judgment.

-- Give advice unless asked.

-- Jump to conclusions.

Source: Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, Runaway and Youth Services

If you are a teen who has run away:

-- Don't panic.

-- Notify someone you trust that you are safe. Maybe they can help you sort out the problem.

-- Contact Lutheran Social Services Runaway and Youth Services at 1-800-924-7238.

If you are the parent of a teen who has run away:

-- Don't panic. Try to think clearly.

-- Keep a record of everyone you contact and write down your own feelings to help clear your head.

-- Look for clues and ask friends, teachers and coaches. Check local hangouts.

-- File a missing persons report with your local police.

-- Contact Lutheran Social Services Runaway and Youth Services at 1-800-924-7238.

-- If your teen calls, remain calm. Show love and concern.

Source: Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, Runaway and Youth Services

-- Runaway and Youth Services helpline, 1-800-924-7238.

-- First Call for Help, (608) 752-3100 or (608) 363-8800.

-- Rock County Crisis Line, (608) 757-5025.

-- Pregnancy Helpline, (608) 755-9739 or (608) 365-5433.

-- Ask-A-Nurse, 1-800-57NURSE.

-- Rock County Social Services, (608) 757-5200.

-- YWCA Alternatives to Violence, (608) 752-2583.

-- Suicide Hotline, 1-800-SUICIDE.

-- National Runaway Switchboard, 1-800-621-4000.

-- Children's Rights Crisis Line, 1-800-442-HOPE.

-- Girls and Boys Town Hotline, 1-800-448-3000.

-- focusas.com

-- nrscrisisline.org

-- girlsandboystown.org

Source: Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, Runaway and Youth Services

Last updated: 1:21 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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