The calls kept coming into the National Runaway Safeline during the pandemic: the desperate kids who wanted to bike away from home in the middle of the night, the isolated youths who felt suicidal, the teens whose parents had forced them out of the house.
To the surprise of experts who help runaway youths, the pandemic didn’t appear to produce a big rise or fall in the numbers of children and teens who had left home. Still, the crisis hit hard. As schools closed and households sheltered in place, youths reached out to the National Runaway Safeline to report heightened family conflicts and worsening mental health.
The Safeline, based in Chicago, is the country’s 24/7, federally designated communications system for runaway and homeless youths. Each year, it makes about 125,000 connections with young people and their family members through its hotline and other services.
In a typical year, teens ages 15-17 are the main group that gets in touch by phone, live chat, email, or an online crisis forum, according to Jeff Stern, chief engagement officer at the Safeline.
But in the past 2 years, “contacts have skewed younger,” including many more children under age 12.
“I think this is showing what a hit this is taking on young children,” he says.
Without school, sports, and other activities, younger children might be reaching out because they’ve lost trusted sources of support. Callers have been as young as 9.
“Those ones stand out,” says a crisis center supervisor who asked to go by Michael, which is not his real name, to protect the privacy of his clients.
In November 2020, a child posted in the crisis forum: “I’m 11 and my parents treat me poorly. They have told me many times to ‘kill myself’ and I didn’t let that settle well with me. … I have tried to run away one time from my house, but they found out, so they took my phone away and put screws on my windows so I couldn’t leave.”
Increasing numbers of children told Safeline counselors that their parents were emotionally or verbally abusive, while others reported physical abuse. Some said they experienced neglect, while others had been thrown out.
“We absolutely have had youths who have either been physically kicked out of the house or just verbally told to leave,” Michael says, “and then the kid does.”
Heightened family conflicts
The Safeline partners with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which, despite widespread public perception, doesn’t work mainly with child abduction cases. Each year, the center assists with 29,000 to 31,000 cases, and 92% involve “endangered runaways,” says John Bischoff, vice president of the Missing Children Division. These children could be running away from home or foster care.
During the pandemic, the center didn’t spot major changes in its missing child numbers, “which honestly was shocking,” Bischoff says. “We figured we were either going to see an extreme rise or a decrease.”
“But the reasons for the run were changing,” he says.
Many youths were fleeing out of frustration with quarantine restrictions, Bischoff says, as well as frustration with the unknown and their own lack of control over many situations.
At the runaway hotline, calls have been longer and more intense, with family problems topping the list of concerns. In 2019, about 57% of all contacts mentioned family dynamics. In 2020, that number jumped to 88%, according to Stern.
Some kids sought support for family problems that involved school. In October 2020, one 13-year-old wrote in the Safeline forum: “My mom constantly yells at me for no reason. I want to leave, but I don’t know how. I have also been really stressed about school because they haven’t been giving me the grades I would normally receive during actual school. She thinks I’m lying and that I don’t care. I just need somebody to help me.”
Many adults are under tremendous strain, too, Michael says.
“Parents might have gotten COVID last month and haven’t been able to work for 2 weeks, and they’re missing a paycheck now. Money is tight, there might not be food, everyone’s angry at everything.”
During the pandemic, the National Runaway Safeline found a 16% increase in contacts citing financial challenges.
Some children have felt confined in unsafe homes or have endured violence, as one 15-year-old reported in the forum: “I am the scapegoat out of four kids. Unfortunately, my mom has always been a toxic person. … I’m the only kid she still hits really hard. She’s left bruises and scratches recently. … I just have no solution to this.”
Worsening mental health
Besides family dynamics, mental health emerged as a top concern that youths reported in 2020. “This is something notable. It increased by 30% just in one year,” Stern says.
In November 2020, a 16-year-old wrote: “I can’t ever go outside. I’ve been stuck in the house for a very long time now since quarantine started. I’m scared. … My mother has been taking her anger out on me emotionally. … I have severe depression and I need help. Please, if there’s any way I can get out of here, let me know.”
The Safeline also has seen a rise in suicide-related contacts. Among children and teens who had cited a mental health concern, 18% said they were suicidal, Stern says. Most were between ages 12 and 16, but some were younger than 12.
When children couldn’t hang out with peers, they felt even more isolated if parents confiscated their phones, a common punishment, Michael says.
During the winter of 2020-21, “It felt like almost every digital contact was a youth reaching out on their Chromebook because they had gotten their phone taken away and they were either suicidal or considering running away,” he says. “That’s kind of their entire social sphere getting taken away.”
Roughly 7 in 10 youths report still being at home when they reach out to the Safeline. Among those who do leave, Michael says, “They’re going sometimes to friends’ houses, oftentimes to a significant other’s house, sometimes to extended family members’ houses. Often, they don’t have a place that they’re planning to go. They just left, and that’s why they’re calling us.”
While some youths have been afraid of catching COVID-19 in general, the coronavirus threat hasn’t deterred those who have decided to run away, Michael says. “Usually, they’re more worried about being returned home.”
Many can’t comprehend the risks of setting off on their own.
In October 2021, a boy, 15, posted on the forum that his verbally abusive parents had 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 live in California with my friend who is a young YouTuber. I need help getting money to either fly or get a bus ticket, even though I’m all right with trying to ride a bike or fixing my dirt bike and getting the wagon to pull my stuff. But I’m looking for apartments in Los Angeles so I’m not living on the streets and I’m looking for a job. Please help me. My friend can’t send me money because I don’t have a bank account.”
“Often,” Michael says, “we’re reality-checking kids who want to hitchhike 5 hours away to either a friend’s or the closest shelter that we could find them. Or walk for 5 hours at 3 a.m. or bike, so we try to safety-check that.”
Another concern: online enticement by predators. During the pandemic, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children saw cases in which children ran away from home “to go meet with someone who may not be who they thought they were talking to online,” Bischoff says. “It’s certainly something we’re keeping a close eye on.”
Fewer resources in the pandemic
The National Runaway Safeline provides information and referrals to other hotlines and services, including suicide prevention and mental health organizations. When youths have already run away and have no place to go, Michael says, the Safeline tries to find shelter options or seek out a relative who can provide a safe place to stay.
But finding shelters became tougher during the pandemic, when many had no room or shelter supply was limited. Some had to shut down for COVID-19-related deep cleanings, Michael says. Helping youths find transportation, especially with public transportation shutdowns, also was tough.
The Huckleberry House, a six-bed youth shelter in San Francisco, has stayed open throughout the pandemic with limited staffing, says Douglas Styles, PsyD. He’s the executive director of the Huckleberry Youth Programs, which runs the house.
The shelter, which serves Bay Area runaway and homeless youths ages 12-17, hasn’t seen an overall spike in demand, Styles says. But “what’s expanded is undocumented [youths] and young people who don’t have any family connections in the area, so they’re unaccompanied as well. We’ve seen that here and there throughout the years, but during the pandemic, that population has actually increased quite a bit.”
The Huckleberry House has sheltered children and teens who have run away from all kinds of homes, including affluent ones, Styles says.
Once children leave home, the lack of adult supervision leaves them vulnerable. They face multiple dangers, including child sex trafficking and exploitation, substance abuse, gang involvement, and violence. “As an organization, that scares us,” Bischoff says. “What’s happening at home, we’ll sort that out. The biggest thing we as an organization are trying to do is locate them and ensure their safety.”
To help runaways and their families get in touch, the National Runaway Safeline provides a message service and conference calling. “We can play the middleman, really acting on behalf of the young person — not because they’re right or wrong, but to ensure that their voice is really heard,” Stern says.
Through its national Home Free program, the Safeline partners with Greyhound to bring children back home or into an alternative, safe living environment by providing a free bus ticket.
These days, technology can expose children to harm online, but it can also speed their return home.
“When I was growing up, if you weren’t home by 5 o’clock, Mom would start to worry, but she really didn’t have any way of reaching you,” Bischoff says. “More children today have cellphones. More children are easily reachable. That’s a benefit.”