PUBLIC SAFETY/Fire department helps with runaway program
The problem of runaway youth is a national one; every year, 1 million to 1.3 million youths run away from home. Chesterfield County, Va., has not been immune to the issue. In 1998, 785 of the nation’s runaways were intercepted by police in Chesterfield County. It is estimated that as many as two-thirds of runaways are never arrested or intercepted by police.
Because many instances of runaway youth can be attributed to abuse or neglect at home, the county created “Safe Place,” an early intervention program that supports youths and their families in the early stages of crisis. The program provides crisis counseling, transportation, medical care and, as an alternative to running away, a safe location where youths and their families can receive support.
The Chesterfield Fire Department has chipped in by providing a network of “safe places”: 16 fire stations that display the Safe Place logo and provide youths in crisis a place to go. The stations are located in all economic and geographic regions of the county and are open and staffed 24 hours a day. Firefighters are trained to respond appropriately to young people who come for help. They provide the youths with secure places to wait while they contact the county’s Department of Family and Children’s Services.
DFCS then works to help defuse the crises, consulting with the youths and their families and referring them to family mediation and community-based counseling services. In cases of abuse or neglect, the department’s Youth Serv-ices staff files complaints with the county’s child protective services and can refer the youths to a local shelter.
The fire department works with Safe Place to enhance the program’s visibility and encourage community support. It has been active in the Safe Place advisory committee, in school presentations and fund development and in training.