The number of at-risk boys and girls staying at PORT Group Homes in Brainerd has decreased, but PORT officials say don’t let the numbers fool you.
Desiree Montonye, PORT’s executive director, said even though the numbers are down, there are still many boys and girls — ages 10 to 21 — out there who need the help that PORT can provide.
Montonye said the reason for the decrease is a result of a poor economy. Boys and girls are referred to PORT by the counties. Montonye said PORT accepts boys and girls throughout the entire state and from other states.
“We’re a private nonprofit organization and are supported by the counties,” said Montonye. “With the economic restraints, more counties can’t afford to place children here and the parents also are keeping their children in their homes longer because they can’t afford it. They’re (families) trying to work out their problems on their own, but these children need more professional help.
“These kids still have a lot of the same issues with behavior and mental health issues and even drugs and alcohol (as they did in previous years), but these kids are not dangerous, they just need our help.”
Currently there are four girls and seven boys at PORT. Montonye said the enrollment numbers have been slowly declining. Between 2000-05, the year-to-date numbers for girls were 14.25 to 15.4; just under 13 in 2006-08; and 8.6 in 2009-10. For boys, 12.5 to 20 in 2000-05, 10.5 to 11.2 in 2006-08; 6.8 in 2009-10.
Because of the decline, PORT was forced to close its Kade Point Home, south of Brainerd, and its Girls PORT South site on St. Mathias Road, that housed girls who advanced out of the main girls’ program. PORT now just has its main girls’ site and boys’ site within Brainerd city limits.
County officials shared their perspective about the enrollment decline.
Pat Sharbonda, Crow Wing County social services supervisor, said in the last 10 years the county has not referred as many youths to PORT as it had in the past. Sharbonda said there are more community-based support services available for youths and their families, including Lutheran Social Service and Northern Pines. Sharbonda said these agencies work one-on-one with the child at school and at their home.
“The county’s goal is to keep families intact and together,” Sharbonda said. “These community-based services help the families. I think there was a shift of philosophy where in the past if a kid was struggling with mental health issues they’d be taken to a residential facility of some kind, but now there are so many of those services in the community.”
Sharbonda said the county follows state laws and statutes, which include using a least restrictive option — on youths with mental health or behavior issues, such as working with the child at home first before moving to a more restrictive option, such as PORT or a foster care setting.
Sharbonda said another reason why PORT may be seeing a decline in referrals is because the county and schools used to send students to PORT for a weekend if they had three unexcused absences from school. Sharbonda said this is not an option anymore and is handled differently.
“I don’t know if (PORT referrals) is less because of economy, but it does have an impact,” said Sharbonda.
PORT, which opened in 1972, provides 24-hour, seven days a week shelter to the boys and girls. PORT provides respite and short term care; helps youths with independent living concepts, group therapy and provides on-site psychologists to help youths who may struggle with personality or attachment disorders, chemical dependency, behavior issues and inappropriate sexual tendencies.
Montonye said one of the bigger issues for boys and girls these days is dealing with gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender questions. Montonye said staff at PORT can help children through these types of feelings with openness. Montonye said a child’s parent or guardians may have not been receptive of their child’s feelings, such as questioning their sexuality and PORT staff can help.
Caroline Bull, PORT clinical director, who also is a psychologist with Lakes Area Counseling, said she sees a lot of children at PORT who are anxious and/or depressed and they don’t know how to manage their own feelings of being angry, sad, scared or even when they’re happy.
“These kids are getting in trouble with the law because they don’t know how to handle their feelings,” said Bull. “This is a huge, complex problem. These kids may not have attached to anyone, they feel they are not loved and this can lead to drugs or gangs ... Many kids come from drug or alcohol abusive homes or they’ve been horribly treated or neglected.”
Bull counsels youths and also works with their parents and extended family to make sure everyone is on the same page on how to help each other. Bull said parenting is the toughest job in the world and PORT can help families. PORT is looking at starting family training via teleconferencing so parents who live out of town can attend.
Montonye said the average stay at PORT is 30 days, compared to nine months, in the past.
“These kids need to stay here longer, but the system doesn’t allow them to,” said Montonye. “It’s just a Band-Aid (staying here for 30 days).”
Bull added that the longer the child stays at PORT the more likely they’ll succeed. Bull said the child needs time to settle in at PORT and to feel safe. They also need time to get excited for school and to build their self-esteem.
“They also need time to learn how to control their emotions,” said Bull. “This all takes time and they need to see it through themselves. (In all these years PORT has been open) we’ve seen huge changes in kids who succeed and it’s great to see them reunite with their family. This is a side the public never gets to see.”
Montonye said the PORT board of directors is looking at ideas on how to raise money to help children in need to get into the program. Montonye said one idea PORT is looking at is securing a part of its building to be a closed campus. Montonye said that this would allow law enforcement the opportunity to drop off boys and girls ages 10-21 at PORT instead of transporting them out of the county to be housed. She said this would save officers and deputies time and money.
JENNIFER STOCKINGER may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5851.