Family House shelter for teens is home of last resort

One of the doors at Family House. (Photo: Carrie Jones Ross)

One of the doors at Family House. (Photo: Carrie Jones Ross)

Imagine a house constantly filled with teens rolling in and out. How would you manage them? What would their bathroom look like? Family House in Rosendale is often the last safety net before a runaway kid hits the streets.

The “safe house” is operated and staffed through Family of Woodstock and licensed by the state Office of Children and Family Services to accommodate up to 14 kids, ages 12-18, who cannot live with their families for whatever reason. Kids are welcome to stay up to 60 days, however 18-year-olds must return home or find alternate housing after seven days. Mostly the kids come from all over Ulster County but some are sent from bordering counties during times when they cannot stay in their own area shelters due to strife or conflict.

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Kids do as many of their normal daily activities as possible, including school, work, sports, extracurricular activities, chores, therapy, doctor appointments and whatever family visits they normally have. Since the school districts are responsible for arranging transportation for students to and from school within 72 hours of a child being displaced, school buses would pick up or drop off kids; if not a bus, then the district would send a cab. The shelter has two counselors on staff to drive kids to and from their appointments as well.

The Family House program director, Cynthia Bennett, said the kids are usually walking through her door either because they have been kicked out, left because of some kind of conflict or something in between. Family House can give the child and their family a chance to cool off for a few days and regroup, or make other arrangements.

“The goal is to return the child to the home,” explained Bennett, but that’s not always possible. Other arrangements might involve staying with another parent, family member, Child Protective Services or temporary foster care. “We are a short-term shelter designed to facilitate kid going into someone else’s care or facilitate a return home, which is our primary focus,” said Bennett.

The Family House program is the only program in the region permitted to house teen mothers and their children — a critical need for a teen mother in crisis. Federal monies will not pay toward placing a woman under the age of 18 in a motel setting, and Bennett added that placing a young woman in such a setting is fraught with peril.

All the usual responsibilities

The day starts out like any other school day, with breakfast and the kids running out the door to their respective schools and activities. The kids are responsible for the same stuff they would be if they lived at home, such as clearing their dishes, keeping their rooms clean, being respectful, doing their homework and all their usual at-home type responsibilities. During the weekends the kids hop in the van with the counselors for active recreation, visiting recreation centers like New Paltz or Rosendale, Walkway Over the Hudson, the library.

Upon entering, the kids sign a set of rules about respecting language and property, chores, minding their own beeswax, keeping out of each other’s rooms, no drugs and/or violence. It is not uncommon that a kid might recognize another kid — which can be either in a friendly or not-so-friendly way — but they are always encouraged to focus on themselves in every instance, rather than one another. Bennett said the kids’ reactions when they first arrive vary from shy and withdrawn to outgoing and talkative. To some, it’s a relief to be out of the fray; for others, it’s scary and stressful to be away from home.  The kids are strongly discouraged from asking each other about their circumstances, and are warned away from gossiping about each other as well. “Boundaries,” said Bennett.  “It’s about having boundaries.” The kids must agree to abide by the rules, or they may not stay. Bennett says it’s a tough balance between enforcing rules and preventing a frustrated kid from walking out into the dark streets of Rosendale.

Family House is not a locked facility, said Bennett. “We are not a secure facility. If the child does not want to be here, we cannot legally hold them. If the judge orders them, they need to stay but I cannot enforce that. If they don’t want to be here, we can talk them through it sometimes. Figure out what we can, and cannot do. [If a teen does not want to cooperate we ask them] ‘Where are you going to go? What are you going to do?  It’s the middle of the night.  Let’s wait till morning.’

“The engagement [with the child] is also to problem-solve,” said Bennett. “If we throw up our hands and say, ‘Just leave,’ are we doing the same thing their parents do? Or the same thing their teachers do when they are being difficult?”

Free expression, but boundaries

Chalkboard paint covers each bedroom door so that the teens can freely express themselves without damaging the walls. There are three floors in the aging building, all brightly painted with murals, pastel and primary-color swirls and “happy art.” The bathrooms are no surprise to those who’ve lived with teenagers: cluttered with curling irons, hair spray, scattered toothbrushes and turned-over shampoo bottles.

Since family conflict happens at all times of day and night, kids roll in at all times of day and night. They’re often unprepared for a visit, and never knowing for how long they might stay. Family provides them with a toothbrush, hygiene products, a clean sheet and blanket, a towel, and a change of clothes, if necessary.

Sometimes there’s fights. Other times there’s friendships. If one kid leaves, he or she is not allowed to be in touch with the other kids until they have left as well. It’s all about boundaries, reminds Bennett. “We cannot keep them from developing romances here, there are males and females. Be here and focus on themselves and not what the others are doing. We discuss boundaries, confidentiality, remind them that you are here for a reason. They don’t come here because life is great.”

Family House is not staffed by professional social workers, though they are beholden to HIPAA laws. It is funded through FEMA, state and county monies. Bennett said the federal budget sequester has presented difficult times, from which they have not fully recovered. Since the job is a low-paying one that involves actively babysitting and interacting with emotionally upset teenagers, it can be a rotating door position, fraught with frustration.

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