St. Louis is fortunate to have a strong network of organizations providing services to at-risk teens. Among the most well-known and esteemed are Epworth Children & Family Services, Annie Malone Children & Family Services, and Edgewood Children’s Center, each of which has a long history of providing child-focused programs ranging from therapeutic schools and residential living situations to emergency respite programs. The latter, especially temporary living situations, are more important than ever in today’s stressful economy and provide a critical safety net for kids who leave home because of personal or family problems.
“We have seen so far this year an increase of more than 20 percent in requests for emergency shelter,” says Kevin Drollinger, executive director of Epworth Children & Family Services, which operates the Youth Emergency Service (YES) program. YES provides short-term housing and therapy for teens who need an immediate and safe place to live. “Demand for our services has gone up tremendously. I would imagine that’s true for most of the shelters in town, not just ours, but because of our location in U City—a prime teen spot—we see the lion’s share.”
Most of the teens who find their way to YES come from a background of abuse and neglect, two situations that tend to worsen in tandem with poor economic conditions and the resulting financial pressures on families. “The latest data I’ve seen internally show that eight out of 10 of these kids experience some sort of abuse or neglect, or some combination of that,” Drollinger says. “Teens in this kind of situation may start out couch-surfing, going from couch to couch, and might end up hanging out on the street. Then, at some point, when they’ve worn out their welcome everywhere, they end up on the steps of an emergency shelter.”
Teens in the City of St. Louis turn to Annie Malone Children & Family Services, which in addition to an emergency respite program, provides residential treatment for children as well as parent education, family reunification services and a therapeutic school. “The majority of youth find us because they have an open case with the children’s division of the state of Missouri, and they are referred to us by their case workers,” explains Tiffany Bryant, Annie Malone’s transitional living coordinator. “However, we also have a crisis program for youth who are not in state custody. I’ll be honest with you, I receive a lot of phone calls from homeless youth. They might have heard about us from friends who were in similar situations.”
Like Epworth, Annie Malone’s emergency respite service is a temporary placement, “just a couple of weeks, and during that time we work with the family to try to solve whatever problem may be present in order to get the youth back into the home and to the point where they can be successful there,” Bryant says. “If we have to refer them out for services, we will do that.”
Edgewood Children’s Center also operates an emergency respite program aimed at averting a family crisis that could end up with a youth leaving home. “We offer an extensive respite program at Edgewood to help families deal with children who may have developmental, emotional or behavior disorders,” says Annie Meagler, communications manager for Great Circle, the new umbrella organization formed with the October 2009 merger of Edgewood and Boys & Girls Town of Missouri. “Edgewood offers two kinds of respite, depending on the level of care needed. We have in-facility respite, where kids actually come to Edgewood, which gives the family a breather and time to collect their thoughts. We also have in-home respite, where we go visit them and do the counseling within their own setting.”
In either case, the goal is to reduce the risk of broken families and provide one-on-one service to the child and support to parents or foster parents. “The Edgewood program is more of an intervention service where we try to come in and help the family before it gets to a crisis point, when the child tries to leave home or the family goes into crisis mode,” Meagler concludes.