The call was from a woman at a youth shelter in Oregon who was working with a 17-year-old girl that had just been dropped off by the police. The girl was on the run from Southern California and wanted to return home to her mother. The “liner,” one of more than 150 staff and volunteers at the National Runaway Switchboard (NRS) who handle over 100,000 calls annually through its 1-800- RUNAWAY hotline, asked to speak directly with the girl to gain a better understanding of her situation.
”I wanted to find out why she ran, what she had experienced while she was on the run, and what her situation was at home,” recalls Michele Lehman, a liner who has been volunteering in the NRS call center for nearly three years. “It was evident she was very upset, scared, and finding it difficult to talk. It comforted her to hear that NRS calls are anonymous, confidential and non-judgmental.”
The girl took a deep breath and began to open up. She told Michele that her parents were divorced and that she was living with her mother. She said her and her mother fought all the time because her mother just “doesn’t understand.” The issues revolved around the girl missing school, not taking medicine she needed for depression, not going to counseling and not showing up at her job.
Michele explained that “the girl wanted to go live with her father thinking things would be better with him.” The girl knew that he had just been released from jail after serving time for drug/alcohol-related charges, but he told her he had a nice home where she could live with him. However, she arrived to discover he was living in a halfway house struggling to makes ends meet. It was not a good environment for her to live in.
”After hearing her story I offered to coordinate a conference call with her mother,” said Michele. “The conference call is a service NRS offers to help open the lines of communication between a youth and parent. On the call, we were able to help the girl and her mother talk about their situation and develop a plan of action to be reunited.”
Part of that plan was getting the girl back home with her mother, and according to Michele, she was able to do that through NRS’ Home Free program done in collaboration with Greyhound bus lines. The program has reunited more than 13,000 families since it began in 1995.
”A ticket was issued from Oregon to Southern California and amazingly, from the time I hung up with the girl until she arrived in Southern California with her mother, it was only 28 hours”€ and it is a 22 hour bus ride,” said Michele.
Keeping America’s Runaway and At-Risk Youth Safe and off the Streets
Family dynamics and abuse continue to be the top reasons runaway and at-risk youth reach out for help, according to NRS’ 2008 call volume statistics analyzing crisis calls handled through the organization’s free, anonymous and confidential 1-800-RUNAWAY hotline. In fact, 44 percent of all crisis calls with youth dealt with family dynamics (divorce, remarriage, problems with siblings) and abuse (substance, physical, sexual, neglect).
Females made up 72 percent of the crisis calls handled by NRS, while more than half (51 percent) of all youth crisis callers were already on the street as a runaway or throwaway.
”It’s a national crisis and most parents in this country don’t realize that their own child may be at risk,” said Maureen Blaha, executive director of NRS, the federally designated national communication system for homeless and runaway youth. “There are warning signs”€ dropping grades, rebellious behavior, breaking rules”€ and there are several things a parent can do to help prevent their child from running from home.”
NRS offers the following tips for parents to help reduce the possibility that their child may run, or contemplate running from home.
- Discuss Feelings: When parents share their feelings, children know it is safe to share their own. Talk about what it feels like to be a parent. Share with your child the things you need from them. Encourage them to talk about their feelings too.
- Create Responsibility: Give your child choices, not orders. Help them understand the consequences of their actions. When punishments need to be administered, ask what they think would be appropriate. Make sure the punishment fits the “crime” and it is consistent with other actions you have taken.
- Understand Your Child: Sympathize with what your child is going through. Look at life from their point of view.
- Don’t Always Give the Answers: Help your child find their own answers or solutions to their problems. You can help them by not giving them the answers all the time, but instead, discussing options. Play “what if” to help them develop problem-solving skills
- Pay Attention: Listen when your child is talking with you. Don’t pretend to listen while you are watching television, reading the paper, or using the computer. Children know the difference.
- Administer Positive Praise: Positive behavior acknowledged is positive behavior repeated. Describe your child’s positive and negative behavior and how it affects others. Be specific and give praise to reward good behavior.
- Give Respect: Acknowledge your child’s struggle to grow and mature.
- Make sure your child knows 1-800-RUNAWAY is a resource for them or someone they know if they are thinking and talking about running away.
For more information visit www.1800RUNAWAY.org for more information, or call 1-800-RUNAWAY to talk with a trained front-line team member.