Runaway Hotlines See Spike in Calls from Kids During COVID

Feb 22, 2022 – Calls continued to come into the National Runaway Safety Line during the pandemic: desperate kids who wanted to leave home by bike in the middle of the night, lonely young adults who were contemplating suicide, teens forced out of their homes by their parents. To the surprise of experts helping runaway teens, the pandemic does not appear to have resulted in a significant increase or decrease in the number of children and teens fleeing their homes. However, the crisis hit hard. As schools closed and households remained in place, young people contacted the National Fugitive Rescue Service to report increased family conflict and worsening mental health.

Safeline, based in Chicago, is a federal 24/7 communications system for runaway and homeless youth. It takes about 125,000 contacts each year with young people and their families through its hotline and other services.Usually, over the course of a year, teens aged 15-17 make up the core group that communicates by phone, chat, email, or online crisis forum, according to Jeff Stern, chief engagement officer at Safeline.

But over the past 2 years, “contacts have gotten younger,” including many more children under the age of 12.“I think it shows the impact this has on young children,” he says.

Without school, sports, and other activities, younger children can lend a helping hand because they have lost reliable sources of support. The caller was only 9 years old.

“These stand out,” says a crisis center executive who asked for Michael (not his real name) to protect the privacy of his clients.

In November 2020, a child wrote on a crisis forum: “I am 11 years old and my parents treat me badly. They told me many times to “kill myself” but I didn’t let it get to me. Once I tried to run away from home, but they found out, took my phone and boarded up the windows so I couldn’t leave.”

A growing number of children reported to Safeline counselors that their parents had been emotionally or verbally abusive, while others reported physical abuse. Some said they were neglected, while others were kicked out.

“We certainly had young people who were either physically kicked out of the house or simply verbally ordered to leave,” says Michael, “and then the child did it.”

Exacerbation of family conflicts

Safeline works with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which despite widespread public opinion, does not focus on child abduction cases. The center helps with 29,000 to 31,000 cases each year, and 92% of those involve “endangered children,” says John Bischoff, vice president of the Missing Children Unit. These children may run away from home or from a foster family.

During the pandemic, the center saw no major change in the number of missing children, “which frankly was shocking,” Bischoff says. “We thought we would either see a sharp rise or a decline.”

“But the reasons for fleeing have changed,” he says.

According to Bischoff, many young people have fled because of frustration with quarantine restrictions, as well as frustration with the unknown and their own lack of control over many situations.

Runaway hotline calls became longer and more intense, with family problems topping the list. In 2019, about 57% of all contacts mentioned family dynamics. That number jumped to 88% in 2020, according to Stern.

Some children have sought support in school-related family problems. In October 2020, a 13-year-old posted on the Safeline forum: “My mom constantly yells at me for no reason. I want to leave, but I don’t know-how. I was also very stressed about school because they didn’t give me the grades that I usually get in a real school. She thinks I’m lying and that I don’t care. I just need someone to help me.”Michael says that many adults also experience tremendous stress.

“Parents may have contracted COVID last month and couldn’t work for 2 weeks and now they don’t have enough pay. Money is tight, food may not be available, everyone is angry at everything.”

During the pandemic, the National Fugitive Security Service found that the number of contacts citing financial problems increased by 16%.

Some children felt locked in unsafe homes or were abused, as one 15-year-old reported on the forum: “I am the guilty one of the four children. Unfortunately, my mom has always been a toxic person. I am the only child she still hits very hard. She recently left bruises and scratches. I just don’t have a solution for this.”

Deteriorating mental health

Beyond family dynamics, mental health has become the top issue reported by youth in 2020. “It’s something remarkable. In just one year, it increased by 30%,” says Stern.

In November 2020, the 16-year-old wrote: “I can never go outside. I have been sitting at home for a very long time since quarantine began. I’m scared. My mother emotionally took out her anger on me. I’m severely depressed and I need help. Please, if there is any way to get out of here, let me know.”

Safeline has also recorded an increase in suicide-related contacts. Among children and adolescents who cited mental health problems, 18% said they were suicidal, Stern said. Most were between the ages of 12 and 16, but some were younger than 12.

When kids couldn’t connect with their peers, they felt even more isolated if their parents confiscated their phones, a common punishment, Michael says.

During the winter of 2020-2021, “it felt like almost every digital contact was a young person reaching out through their Chromebook because they had their phone taken away and were either suicidal or contemplating running away,” he says. . “It’s as if the entire social sphere is being taken away from them.

Verification in practice

Approximately 7 out of 10 young people report that they are still at home when they contact Safeline. Among those who do leave, Michael says: “Sometimes they gather at friends’ houses, often at the house of a significant other, sometimes at the houses of distant relatives. Often they do not have a place where they plan to go. They just left, that’s why they’re calling us.”

While some young people feared contracting COVID-19 at all, the threat of the coronavirus didn’t stop those who decided to run away, Michael said. “Usually they’re more worried about going home.” Many fail to realize the risks involved in traveling alone.

In October 2021, a 15-year-old boy posted on a forum that his abusive parents called him a mistake and said they couldn’t wait for him to move out.

“So I’m going to make their dreams come true,” he wrote. “I’m going to go to California with my friend, a young YouTuber. I need help getting money to buy a plane or bus ticket, although I don’t mind trying to ride a bike or fix my off-road motorcycle and have a van carry my stuff. But I’m looking for an apartment in Los Angeles, so I don’t live on the street and I’m looking for a job. Please help, my friend can’t send me money because I don’t have a bank account.”
“Often,” says Michael, “we reality check kids who want to hitchhike 5 hours to a friend’s shelter or the nearest shelter we can find them. Or walk for 5 hours at 3 a.m. or ride a bike, so we’re trying to test it.”
Another problem: online luring by predators. During the pandemic, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children documented cases of children running away from home “to meet someone who may not have been who they thought they were talking to online.” Bischoff says. “It’s certainly something we’re keeping a close eye on.”

Fewer resources in a pandemic

The National Fugitive Helpline provides information and referrals to other hotlines and services, including suicide prevention and mental health services. When young people have already fled and have nowhere to go, Michael said, Safeline is looking for shelter options or to find a relative who can provide a safe place to live.

But finding shelter became more difficult during the pandemic when many had no space or limited shelters. According to Michael, some had to close for a general cleanup related to COVID-19. Helping young people to find transport, especially in the face of public transport stops was also not easy.

The Huckleberry House, a six-bed San Francisco youth shelter, has remained open throughout the pandemic with limited staff, says Douglas Stiles, a psychologist. He is the executive director of the Huckleberry Youth Program which runs the house.

The shelter, which caters to runaway and homeless youths aged 12 to 17, hasn’t seen an overall surge in demand, Stiles said. But “what is extended is undocumented [youths] and young people who don’t have family connections in the area so they are also unaccompanied. We’ve seen it here and there over the years, but during the pandemic, that population actually increased quite a bit.”According to Stiles, the Huckleberry House took in children and teenagers who had run away from a wide variety of homes, including rich ones.

Once children leave home, the lack of adult supervision makes them vulnerable. They face multiple dangers, including child trafficking and exploitation for sexual purposes, substance abuse, gang membership, and violence. “It scares us as an organization,” Bischoff says. “What happens at home, we will figure it out. The most important thing we as an organization are trying to do is find them and keep them safe.”

To help fugitives and their families get in touch, the National Fugitive Safety Line provides a messaging and conference call service. “We can play the role of an intermediary, really acting on behalf of the young person — not because they are right or wrong, but so that their voice is really hard,” says Stern.

As part of its national Home Free program, Safeline is partnering with Greyhound to bring children back home or to alternative, safe living environments by providing a free bus ticket.Technology can harm children online these days, but it can also speed up their return home.

“When I was growing up, if you weren’t home by 5 o’clock, mom would get worried, but she really didn’t have a chance to contact you,” says Bischoff. “Today, more children have mobile phones. More children are easily achievable. This is an advantage.”

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