Odyssey House Walk-aways Causing Problems

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By Patrick Cronin

Hampton Union, Friday, March 20, 2009

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online]

HAMPTON -- The Hampton Police Department has been dealing with more runaways than ever before, with the lion's share coming from the Odyssey House, a residential treatment facility for teenagers dealing with substance abuse.

"It's a concern for us because of the increase in the amount of calls we have received and the manpower that is involved every time a juvenile runs away," said Hampton Police Chief James Sullivan. "When it happens repeatedly, it impacts the town."

In 2008, the Police Department responded to 80 calls from the Odyssey House location on Winnacunnet Road indicating that teens had walked off the facility's grounds without permission. During 2007, that number was only 36.

Erik Johannessen, CEO of the Odyssey House, said the numbers are alarming, but there is little he or his staff can do.

"We are an open facility and not a locked facility," Johannessen said. "While the public can't get in, the kids can get out."

Johannessen said legally his staff can not force a child to stay at the facility, even if they were ordered by a court to be there. It is Odyssey House policy, based on legal advice, to contact police whenever a patient leaves the grounds without permission, he said.

"We try to convince kids not to leave and that it's in their best interest to see their treatment through," Johannessen said. "But if a kid says, 'I'm leaving and there is nothing you can do to stop me,' he's right.

"It's the way the state has set up the system," the Odyssey CEO said. "It's a residential treatment facility, it's not a jail."

Sullivan said over the years it has not been unusual for police officers to respond to the Winnacunnet Road facility for one to two runaways a month.

"But when we got to the point that we were taking seven or eight reports a week, it spoke to us as being a concern," Sullivan said.

Hampton Police Lt. Dan Gidley said officers are not only concerned about the strain these walk-aways put on the department, but also that some of these former Odyssey House residents have allegedly committed crimes in town.

"We have had some issues where we suspected some of the kids were involved in burglaries, stolen cars and numerous thefts," Gidley said.

"This is a private, nonprofit facility that has taken up residency in town," the lieutenant said. "For them to not be able to control their residents to the point where they are now leaving and going out committing other crimes is unfair to the residents in this town."

Last year, five of the runaways were charged with criminal mischief, six with assault and nine with disorderly conduct, the Gidley said.

"Those things have happened, but they are very rare," Johannessen admitted.

He said Odyssey House has a tough screening process and no one who is psychotic, an arsonist, a sexual perpetrator, or prone to assaulting others is admitted into the program.

Johannessen said his staff has met with police and are working on trying to lower the number of kids who leave the property without permission.

They attribute the high number of runaways last year to the closure of their Rochester facility. Those kids were brought to the Hampton facility, and some may not have been happy about it, the CEO said.

The majority of children that do leave, he said, are just going to the store or stepping out for a cigarette.

"We are now having a staff member accompany that kid, as long as staffing ratios allow use to do that," Johannessen said.

Currently there are 30 kids in the program with a ratio of one staff member to every four residents.

Johannessen said the staff is also working on other changes that he hoped will bring down the numbers of those leaving the property.

While there were nine runaways in the month of January, Johannessen said that activity has become less frequent.

"The last couple of months runaways have gone way down," the executive director said.

Gidley said that while that is true, he's not sure how long it will last. He said he believes the organization can do more.

"The chief even made suggestion that if they want to reduce the number of runaways, they should take their shoes and lock them away." Gidley said. "No one is running away without any shoes.

"But they don't want to do that," he said. "They don't want to stop them from walking out the door. They would rather call us."

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