12 July 2006


Center teaches youths that fleeing problems solves nothing

Helping runaways get back on track

Last month, Vanessa, 16, and a friend pawned their jewelry and bought two $45 bus tickets to Chicago. She left no note for her family, no telephone message, nothing. Bonnie Buccigrossi, a juvenile residential officer at the Letot Center in Dallas, provides supervision for youths at risk of entering the juvenile justice system. Each year, about 2,400 runaways move through Letot, which works to reunite youths with their families. Her father thought she might be with a guy, who might be part of a gang, which might be into drugs or worse. Her mother couldn't sleep at night; she was briefly hospitalized when stress aggravated her diabetes. They were scared, angry, worried and confused.

When Vanessa came home two weeks later, a truancy judge sentenced her to 30 days at the Letot Center for runaways. It was not a punishment; it was an intervention. "I didn't know the consequences of me running away," she said as her 7-year-old sister held her hand and her parents sat across the table on the day of her release from Letot. "Now I know, and I won't do it again."

The center, aided by the Dallas Police Department's High Risk Victims and Trafficking unit, has helped the city become a leader in the country for protecting its children. "Dallas has taken the effort against child exploitation light years beyond anyone in the country," said John Rabun, vice president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Letot, which opened in 1979, works to reunite runaways with their families whenever possible and to prevent youths from entering the juvenile justice system. For youths needing a place to stay, shelters are available for up to 30 days. Throughout the country, about 355,000 children run away each year; 9,000 of those end up in Dallas. About 2,400 end up moving through the center. "Letot is the largest and most comprehensive center for runaways in the country," said Sam Quattrochi, director of Letot. In the past, Dallas police have routinely picked up runaways off the street, only to return them to possibly troubled homes where they are likely to run away again. These children are vulnerable to exploitation or becoming criminal offenders. "What we've been doing in the past simply has not been working," said Sgt. Byron Fassett, who helped create the high-risk victims unit in November. "We've had to reinvent the wheel."

By red-flagging chronic runaways, the department is able to identify high-risk victims. "When we started to look at all the kids that are sexually exploited, the kids that are involved in prostitution, we saw that 80 percent of those kids had run away four or more times in a 12-month period," Sgt. Fassett said. In Dallas, child prostitutes are not treated as criminals, but as victims. "It's easy for us to categorize runaways as problem children, troubled kids, and for everybody to push them along," Sgt. Fassett said. "When the entire system, including the parents, doesn't do its job, then the child slips between the cracks."

This nontraditional approach to juvenile police work is receiving national recognition. "It's the walk-on-water unit," Mr. Rabun said. "It's the national model." After runaways are interviewed by police to determine if they've been exploited by adults, police transport them to the center off Denton Drive near Harry Hines Boulevard in northwest Dallas. "The Police Department can't solve the problem by itself; the juvenile department can't solve it by itself; CPS and social services can't solve this problem by itself. But as a system, working cooperatively together, we can make some headway to help these kids," Sgt. Fassett said.

Activities � such as group therapy, confidence-building sessions, life-skills development and family counseling � help the children open up and address the problems in their lives. "We provide a lot of tools for them that they're not receiving outside," said Bonnie Buccigrossi, juvenile resident officer. "Journaling and art help the youth process their problems in their own minds." The center has a 69 percent success rate at releasing children back to their parents or primary caregivers. "Here at Letot, we try to nurture the children and the whole family," said Violet Zuniga, a Letot case manager, "but we make the most progress when the family realizes they need to change."

After Brenda Zapata, 16, physically assaulted her mother, the juvenile court gave her the choice between a $500 fine or nonresidential Letot family counseling; she opted for the counseling. With the help of Ms. Zuniga, Brenda and her mother, Maria, who agreed to be identified in this story, have been working on their communication for the past month.

Mrs. Zapata said she believes the counseling is effective. She asks her daughter about her plans for the day, and they joke with each other around the breakfast table. "I'm glad I came here," Brenda said. "I wouldn't have understood what I did was wrong and why. Fines don't teach you anything. Letot did teach me something. Things are better at home because of it, and now I want to make something out of myself."

The center is about to undergo a $5 million fundraising campaign to build a long-term residential facility for runaways. The money would expand Letot so that children with severe issues could stay six to 12 months. New long-term programs would be aimed at building independence and responsibility in order for the runaways to have the skills they need to become adults. "It's impossible for us to try to solve 15 years of problems in 30 days," Sgt. Fassett said. "Right now, we simply have no place to put these kids. As a result, they go right back to their destructive environments and then run away again. For us to take this to the next level, we have to have long-term secure placement for these kids."

During her stay at Letot, Vanessa spoke with counselors, peers and her family about changes she would make. She wants to be more responsible. She wants to finish school. She wants to be happy. Vanessa and her parents were glad to be reunited after her 30-day stay at the Letot Center. Vanessa missed her mom's home-cooked food, and Vanessa's parents missed their daughter. "I don't think I'll run away again," she said. "I don't want to anymore."

Chris Colgin
10 July 2006



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