By Deirdre Conner

Starting a new semester at college. The second job she urgently needs to supplement her work-study gig. The trip to the doctor that she doesn’t have insurance to cover.

It might seem like Natalie Mancuso has a lot on her mind. And she does.

But for the 19-year-old aspiring kindergarten teacher, those worries are manageable compared to last fall.

That’s when Mancuso, homeless and living in her car, joined the ranks of a growing number of older teens in crisis. 

It’s a trend that social service agencies are grappling with as they try to help troubled youth become independent.

Often, it is a complex set of factors that lead older teens to be kicked out of the house, abandoned or occasionally left adrift on the doorstep of the state Department of Juvenile Justice after parents refuse to pick them up.

While some cases might be an abdication of parental duties, many are family clashes that escalate to the point where parents are ready to throw up their hands and give up.

In some cases, it’s up to child welfare authorities to step in. With kids under 18 years old, parents who abandon their children are subject to criminal charges, although they rarely face such charges, said Jim Adams, CEO of Family Support Services.

“Ungovernable” is the word many experts use to describe teens that are out-of-control. They compose about 40 percent of all teenagers who come into foster care in the region, Adams said. Others are victims of abuse, neglect or abandonment.

Complicating the matter, however, is a teenager’s 18th birthday. Legally, they become an adult. But, said Adams, few 18-year-olds are ready for independence at that age — least of all teenagers who, for whatever reason, cannot go back home.

Natalie Mancuso wasn’t ready. Armed with a Bright Futures scholarship and becoming the first in her family to attend college, she had been working and going to school full-time.

But when her father kicked her out of the house, she was suddenly on precarious ground.

She had to fight for independent status to get a Pell Grant to stay in the dorms at the University of North Florida. After a bout with severe depression, things collapsed. She was forced to leave the dorms and withdraw from school; her job stopped offering full-time hours.

She bounced between nights crashing at friends’ houses and sleeping in her car.

That changed in January, when she moved into Project Prepare, the independent living program run by daniel, a child welfare agency in Jacksonville for homeless youth from 16 to 21 years old. It was a profound relief.

“I love it here,” she said.

The walls are yellow and the accents purple in Mancuso’s tiny but tidy apartment. Along with her high school diploma, photographs of her nieces and sisters dot the walls — her motivation to keep going.

At Project Prepare, she pays rent and is required to keep busy with work and school and attend weekly group classes that teach residents how to rent an apartment or manage their money.

Cathy Turner, who runs the program, said each teen at the village comes with their own story.

A boy whose mother chose her new boyfriend over her son.

A girl whose mother and father are dead.

A boy whose mother says she is supportive — but still won’t let him live with her.

All are in need of a stable, affordable and safe place to live and skills they’ll need once they have to leave Project Prepare.

Mancuso’s deadline to move out is January. She’s nervous about being able to save while paying off $6,000 in medical bills.

“I am praying to God that I find a job,” she said.

Becoming an ‘adult’

Turning 18 might not seem to change a kid much — but for child welfare and legal agencies, it means a world of difference. Parents are legally permitted to kick them out, regardless of whether they have finished high school. Health insurance suddenly becomes difficult to obtain without a full-time, benefits-paying job. And at age 18, the foster care system will no longer take them.

That’s why more programs have been opening to help them prepare for independence. They include:

– Touchstone Village, run by the Youth Crisis Center, a transitional program for youth ages 16-21 who are aging out of foster care.

– Passport to Independence, run by Family Support Services, a series of steps — such as getting a driver’s license and opening a bank account — to guide foster youth age 17-23.

– Buckner Place, run by the Children’s Home Society, for teen mothers in foster care and young women who have aged out of foster care.

While trying to prevent homelessness among older teens, agencies are also hoping to prevent, where possible, families from reaching the point of no return.

“The No. 1 phone call a lot of people in health and human services get is, ‘I just can’t handle this child any more,’ ” said Christine Carr, chief probation officer for the Department of Juvenile Justice in Jacksonville.

It is rare — perhaps once every couple of months — that a parent flatly refuses to pick up a teenager from the Juvenile Assessment Center or following a stay at a Juvenile Justice residential program, Carr said. The court often has no choice but to turn them over to child welfare authorities, and likely foster care.

But outside the extreme cases, cries for help are everywhere, Carr said. Mostly, she refers them to the Youth Crisis Center or one of the United Way’s Full-Service Schools located in a number of public schools. 

“One of the biggest things is, the child didn’t wake up at 14 years old with these problems,” Carr said. “It can’t be treated in a vacuum.”

That’s not always a welcome message when families are at a breaking point, but getting everyone to talk can be the best way to prevent future problems, said Kim Sirdevan, clinical director at the Youth Crisis Center. The center, which provides counseling to families and short-term emergency shelter, has been busier this year than in the past.

Often, parents do throw up their hands and say, “I’m done.” But Sirdevan said a cooling-off period and counseling can often change their minds and restore peace on both sides.

“A lot of parents are at an ‘I am parent, hear me roar,’ wavelength,” she said.

Discussing coping mechanisms, family rules and most importantly, bringing issues to a talking — not screaming — level are key to restoring peace in a household before a crisis ensues. And such counseling is available.

“People often are referred by DJJ or the State Attorney’s Office,” she said, “and say, ‘Wow, I wish I had known about this before.’ ”

deirdre.conner@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4504

AUTHOR

NN4Y

DATE

June 15, 2010

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