Teen Runaways Offered Safe Havens Across Polk

Sites in Lake Wales and Polk County provide shelter to keep kids safe.

Published: Thursday, June 14, 2012 at 10:09 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, June 14, 2012 at 10:09 p.m.

LAKE WALES | No one wants a child to run away, but if one does, there are places to go.

The Lake Wales Fire Department and all Lake Wales Care Center sites are now safe havens for teenage runaway's under the Youth and Family Alternatives Safe Place program.

Fire Chief Jerry Brown said the locations are designed for children ages 10-17 who need somewhere to go if they are in a crisis at home and decide to run away.

"This is not to encourage runaways," Brown said, "but to say if they do, that's a safe harbor."

Brown said his station is staffed 24/7, and although there might be the rare occasion when all on-duty firefighters are on a large fire call, it may only take 10 to 15 minutes to get off-duty city or county firefighters to staff the station.

When a youth arrives at the station, Brown said, he or his staff will provide shelter and call people at the George W. Harris Jr. Runaway and Youth Crisis Shelter in Bartow.

John Kazaklis, along with fellow outreach case worker Latonya Jackson, is tasked with expanding the project.

He said having locations all over the county helps ensure youth can reach a location quickly and safely.

A big reason why comes from the story of how one Lakeland youth rode his bicycle 10 miles along U.S. 98 to the shelter after finding out his father had beaten his mother while high on drugs, he said.

Other locations around Polk County include the Bartow Fire Department, Bay Area Youth Services of Lakeland, Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Lakeland, The Mission of Winter Haven, Simpson Park Community Center in Lakeland, and all of the buses on the Citrus Connection, Polk Transit Authority and Winter Haven Area Transit lines, Kazaklis said.

Having Safe Place havens throughout Polk County makes it easier for kids to reach a safe place, Kazaklis said.

It also helps make the Harris Shelter known, he said.

He and Jackson do outreach at local schools to make sure youth know where the Harris Shelter or nearest Safe Place is located.

Brown said his staff had to get trained on what to do and what not to do as a Safe Place shelter.

For example, staff can let a youths in and keep them safe and call the Harris Shelter to say a child is there.

However, Brown said, his firefighters are not supposed to ask details about a child's home life or situation. That's the job of Harris Shelter staff.

"We just give comfort," Brown said.

If a child volunteers information, he said, and it's severe enough to require police investigation, the law requires his people to call police.

But as members of a Safe Place, they are not required to call parents, Brown said.

Case workers will do that.

Brown said his firefighters — most of whom are parents — are on board with this.

"We respond to all kinds of emergencies," Brown said. "We run across teens leaving home for many reasons. We can't keep them from leaving home, but if they are going to do that, (the Lake Wales Fire Department) is a place they can chill out and be safe."

Kazaklis said similar temporary shelters have been around since the 1980s — started by the YMCA — when runaways living on the streets were a big problem.

The Lake Wales Care Center has also come on board in the last week as a Safe Place, he said.

Rob Quam, executive director of the Lake Wales Care Center said that two locations — the main office at 140 E. Park St. and the clinic at 210 Wiltshire Blvd. — are now Safe Place shelters.

A team of four to five case workers have been trained by Youth and Family Alternatives.

"It's better that an adolescent doesn't have to hunt around for a place to go," Quam said.

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