The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 59
Jennifer Gonzalez, host
Because our work is to serve and teach kids, any issue that impacts kids has the potential to impact our work. For that reason, I’m devoting this episode to learning more about the problem of runaway youth. I’m interviewing Maureen Blaha, executive director of the National Runaway Safeline to learn about how running away impacts kids, what teachers and parents can do to help prevent the problem, and what resources are available for kids who have run away.
This episode will be fairly short, but it’s valuable stuff to know: Because I have never known anyone personally who has run away, I really wasn’t aware of how significant the problem was. I also never really thought much about the long-term consequences of running away. Anyone who works with kids should have a basic understanding of this issue and where to go for more information. The more awareness we can build with this information, the better off our kids will be.
Just in case you get interrupted while listening and you don’t make it all the way through the episode, I want to give you the most important information first. The National Runaway Safeline offers a ton of valuable services for kids who have run away or kids who are just thinking about it. To learn more, visit their website at 1800runaway.org or call 1-800-RUNAWAY.
Before I play the interview, I’d like to thank everyone who has left a review for this podcast on iTunes. I check these about once a week and am absolutely thrilled when I find a new one. Every new review bumps the show up on the iTunes ratings, and that helps more people find the entire archive of episodes to listen to and learn from. So thank you so much.
Now let’s learn about how we can help with the runaway problem.
GONZALEZ: Maureen Blaha, you are the executive director of the National Runaway Safeline.
GONZALEZ: So why don’t you just start by giving us a quick overview of what your organization does?
BLAHA: Absolutely. So the National Runaway Safeline’s mission is to keep America’s runaway, homeless and at-risk youth safe and off the streets. We have been around for over 40 years. In fact, we were founded back in 1971 to be a service hotline, really, for at-risk youth in Chicagoland, and in 1974 we went national. And we went national when Congress passed the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, which was an acknowledgment that kids that ran from home weren’t necessarily bad kids, but it was often a cry for help, and that we as a society could do better, and so a whole system of care for runaway and homeless youth was established, including the National Communications System, which is us. And back then, and for many years, our primary way of connecting with young people was through our 24-hour hotline. And over the past few years, we’ve added different platforms, if you will, for young people to connect with us, with the proliferation, of course, of the internet, etc. So we now can connect with young people via live chat, and often they will post things on our forum on the website. They can send us an email that we can respond to and text us. So we are really as holistic as possible in terms of making connections with young people, and they reach out to us when they are struggling with some sort of situation either when they’re still home and they’re feeling overwhelmed by a variety of things, or they’ve taken the leap of running from home, and they’re afraid and alone and on the streets. We are there to support them and help them get to safety.
GONZALEZ: Let’s just start by establishing what the problem is. I think everybody is aware that there are kids who run away, but you’re probably more in touch with the statistics. Tell us a little bit about how significant the runaway problem is in the United States.
BLAHA: It’s a very significant issue, Jennifer. People are shocked when I talk about the reality of 1.6 to 2.8 million youth will run away from home this year.
BLAHA: It’s a big, big problem, and it really touches all socioeconomic families, it really touches on all backgrounds, in a rural community, in an urban community, ethnic diversity. It’s a universal problem in our country.
GONZALEZ: OK. And let’s expand on that a little bit, because when I hear the term “runaway,” I sort of just think of the act of leaving home, but running away actually has a whole set of associated risks. So help us understand what the bigger consequences are of running away.
BLAHA: Sure. So often what happens is there have been a few things going on in the home that typically are triggers for a young person to say, “I don’t want to be here anymore. I think somewhere other than home is a good place for me.” But they haven’t really thought through, what does that actually mean? So if they end up on the streets, initially they become really susceptible to being victims of crime. They’re afraid, they’re alone, they’re on the streets. Obviously they kind of stick out like a sore thumb, and they become victims of crime. After awhile, in order to survive, they become perpetrators of crime: panhandling, maybe dealing drugs, oftentimes they get recruited into the human trafficking vortex. And so running away from home and being on the streets is really not a good plan and is really not safe for young people. What happens is they’re away from home, and then they realize, “How am I going to survive?” Some of them do this, we call it couch surfing. So tonight they may stay at your house. Tomorrow night they may stay at my house. And meanwhile, the adult in that home realizes that this is a young person that’s away from home. Those typically are safer situations, but on the street, it’s not a good place.
GONZALEZ: OK. Just to make sure that everyone listening is clear, when you talk about human trafficking, does that typically mean that they’re getting involved in the sex trade in some way?
BLAHA: That’s the more common situation. They get recruited into the sex trade. But also labor trafficking. Again, these are very vulnerable youth. They sort of need to earn money, and they get recruited to get on a bus and go out of state and sell magazines door to door, and those are not good situations. They are really victims of that labor trafficking as well.
GONZALEZ: OK, OK. Got it. And one other thing, just in terms of understanding the whole picture, is the LGBTQ population, have you found that they are more at risk for running away?
BLAHA: Yeah. Actually when there has been research, not necessarily our research, but other research that indicates that LGBTQ youth are significantly overrepresented on the streets, with about 40 percent of homeless youth identifying as being LGBTQ.
GONZALEZ: Got it. If we’re looking at this from the perspective of teachers, although I am imagining that parents will listen to this also. Let’s talk a little bit about prevention. What are some of the warning signs that a child is thinking about running away?
BLAHA: A couple of things that we talk with parents about: One is changes in behavior or patterns. Often there’s a sign that there’s something wrong. Teens who suddenly stop eating or begin to overeat. They’re sleeping all day, which we know teens do like to sleep, but maybe more than would be typical, or never sleeping. Spending all their time away from home with friends, or never wanting to leave their room. Mood swings. Those can often be warning signs that, you know, something’s wrong here. A couple of other things are rebellious behavior is often the start of trouble. And by that we mean their grades have been dropping, they may be truant, they’re breaking rules at home, and that this has not been typical for that youth. Other reality is if a young person, a teen, says to their parent, “I’m thinking of running away. I’m getting out of here.” We would say to that parent, “Take that very seriously. It’s time to sit down with your child and say, ‘Wait a minute. We need to have a conversation.’” And the last thing would be accumulation of money or possessions. You know, sometimes kids thinking about running away have it in their mind, and they may start to, again, accumulate possessions or money, because then they would believe that that will help them once they’re away from home.
GONZALEZ: That’s interesting. Yeah, because I’m thinking a lot of this stuff that you said prior to that, I can imagine a lot of parents sort of getting a little freaked out, because they’re thinking, “Well, I know my 12-year-old daughter spends lots of time alone in her room.” You’re talking about really a more abrupt change in what they’re typically doing?
BLAHA: Yeah. You know, we all know that adolescents are going through a lot of changes. Part of what they’re going through is that they want to become adults. They want to be independent. And, you know, they’re going to push the boundaries and do some things that are different, and that’s pretty normal behavior. But if your teen is spending an inordinate amount of time alone in their room, and this is not the kind of behavior that’s been typical, I would say it’s time to really have a conversation, to say, “Hey, let’s talk about this.”
GONZALEZ: Let’s talk about that kind of conversation. I’m thinking if you’ve got an unhappy kid, you know with parents who have not maybe been getting along, what would your recommendation be for what that conversation could look like?
BLAHA: So what we would suggest is that it’s really an opportunity to confront any suspicions that you might have as soon as possible, and to really have a heart-to-heart conversation with your child, having no distractions, this is not while you’re reading the newspaper, this is not while you’re watching TV, but really make that conversation the focus for that moment in time or that amount of time. And talk to your child to let them know that you’re concerned about their safety, and that you want to talk about things that you’re seeing are changes. And we would also encourage parents to share that, “Hey, I know this is a tough time. This is when you’re growing up. When I was a teen, I struggled a little bit too.” It’s OK to be human and share those kinds of feelings that you had. And it may awaken the child to realize, “Hey, I’m not alone in this, and even Mom went through that.” And then to talk about your willingness to bring in some kind of resources, and to be honest with your child, to say, “If this is hard for you to talk to me about … “ How about identifying somebody that that child may be able to be more open with. Is that a relative? Is it a coach? Is it somebody in the church community? And, if need be, you know, call the National Runaway Safeline and ask for resources in your community that may be counseling or family counseling resources.
GONZALEZ: OK, great. You know, in your work with runaways, have you ever noticed or has anybody ever sort of brought up this question with the kids themselves, “Is there something your parents could have done or said that would have kept you at home?” Is there any common thread that you hear from them a lot?
BLAHA: What I would say is one of our programs that we have is called the Home Free Program. And this is a program where if a child is away from home and realizes, “This is not what I want,” and wants to get back home, we have a relationship with Greyhound bus, and we can get a free bus ticket home for that youth. What we do as part of that family reunification program though is we have a conference call with the parent and the child. We want to make sure the parent is opening their door to the child returning and really begin to start that dialogue again. And sometimes what we hear youth say is, “I didn’t really know that she cared that much. I thought I didn’t matter to her. I thought she wouldn’t care if I left home.” That kind of thing. So it’s really making sure that your child understands that, there are going to be issues that we need to work through, but we want to work through them together, because I love you, and I want you to be here, and I want us to be together as a family.
GONZALEZ: Got it. So let’s look at this from a teacher’s perspective. Are there warning signs that a teacher might see in their student, and if so, what should they do? Obviously we have a duty to report any suspected problems, but beyond just getting in touch with a guidance counselor or an administrator about suspected runaway behavior, what are other things that teachers could do? What would be the signs that they would see, first of all?
BLAHA: Well, I would say it’s probably not a whole lot different, in some respects, than what a parent might observe, although a teacher is only with them X number of hours a day. But if this is a youth that, you know, has been somebody working hard on her grades, and all of a sudden there’s no interest there in doing well, this is a child that has not been truant in the past and is being truant, this is someone who is isolating herself from her peers, those are, again, warning signs for the teachers as well to say, “This is a change in behavior, and I wonder what is going on with that child.” And to be able to, you know, have a conversation to just say, “I notice things are changing, and would you like to talk to me about it?” Or, like you said, say, “I notice things are different. I’m worried about you. We have an opportunity here at the school for you to meet with a guidance counselor,” that sort of thing. Because sometimes a young person is afraid to open up, but if it is the trusted adult that gives them permission to do that, that could make a world of difference. You know, one of the things that we know for kids that run from home, kids that are homeless is if they have a mentor, if you will, in their lives, that is there for the child, and that child understands it and trusts it, it can make a world of difference.
GONZALEZ: That is great. That’s a great reminder. You mentioned the Home Free Program. What other resources do you offer to parents and educators to help with this problem?
BLAHA: Yeah, that’s a great question. And one of the things that we are very proud of, in addition to our crisis intervention that we do online and on the phone, we have this great runaway prevention curriculum called Let’s Talk. And it’s evidence-based, and it’s intended to build life skills and help young people learn how to resolve problems without resorting to running away or getting engaged in unsafe behavior. This is free of charge for educators and other community organizations across the country. They can find this available on our website, which is 1800runaway.org. It’s free of charge, and there are 14 modules. So a teacher could either use it in total, each of the modules is about 45 minutes, or could use the different modules depending on what is going on in the classroom or to supplement something else. And the modules are everything from, you know, stress reduction, to runaway reality, to peer pressure, to making life choices. It’s remarkable. And each of those modules has several different activities that help the young person feel engaged in this discussion and in, again, helping them to learn that there are places to turn, including 1800runaway.org, when things are feeling overwhelming for them.
GONZALEZ: Got it. Anything else that you offer as an organization that you’d like people to know about?
BLAHA: Well, the other thing is, you know, we encourage people to be a partner in this runaway prevention that we do. And there are ways to do that. We have what we call Street Teams that people can participate in. They can, again, visit our website at 1800runaway.org and download an application to be a Street Team member, either as an individual or a key club in a school or a girl scout group or a parent and a child together, and it’s really an opportunity to learn a little bit more about what the National Runaway Safeline does and the dangers of youth running. But to educate the community where they are by putting posters up that we would send them, by putting together sort of a talk that they could present at a group setting or in the school, to do a YouTube video, whatever it might take to help educate about, “Hey. We all end up having issues in our life, especially when we’re teens, sometimes we’re not able to cope. But there is a resource available at 1800runaway.org, and it’s a great activity to really get engaged and to, you know, feel like, ‘Hey, I’m part of the solution here.’”
GONZALEZ: Right, right. You know, another question just occurred to me that we hadn’t talked about earlier. You know, it sounds like a lot of the model that is set up right now is to reunite kids with their families. But what if we’re dealing with, and I think this probably does make up a good size percentage of runaways, we’re dealing with a child who is in an abusive home, and returning home really is not a great idea? How do you all respond in those situations?
BLAHA: Yeah, that’s a really good question. So although we are mandated reporters, we don’t really typically have enough information to make a report. So let me give you an example of a call that we’ve gotten. So a young girl calls, and she says, “I’m not 100 percent sure why I’m calling you. All I know is that I can’t go home, not as long as my stepfather is there.” So that’s how she starts it. So part of our process is to really help to make her comfortable to share more and tell us more about what’s going on. And what we realize is that there is a potential abuse going on in that family based on what she has told us. And so one of the things that we can offer is that we will conference a call with protective services, and we talk to her about her ability to make a report to protective services in her state, and she was willing to do that as long as we stayed on the call with her. And so we stayed on the call. We got them on the phone via conference call, and were really there to support the young person in making that report. If a young person is on the streets, and they’re calling us, one of the things that we have resources in our database are programs that are set up specifically for teens that are really emergency shelters, not adult shelters, but emergency shelters for young people. And we will make sure that there’s a bed and, you know, again, conference the call to the shelter with the young person on, so the young person understands what to expect when they get there and kind of facilitate how he or she will get to the shelter. And then the shelter is, you know, typically they can hold the young person for about two weeks, and they will really work. We do the crisis intervention, but the shelters will work to determine, “Is going home with some resources brought into the family the right thing to do? Or is this someone that really, maybe needs to be placed in foster care or another situation?”
GONZALEZ: OK. And so really … the service, in terms of the hotline, that’s just, it’s sort of a first touch point.
GONZALEZ: It sounds like what you do is you intake this person, whatever their situation is, and then you bounce them to whatever services are going to be appropriate for their situation and kind of stay with them until you’re sure that they’re going to be getting those services. Does that sound right?
BLAHA: Well, what we do is our model, our crisis intervention model, is to really support that young person in coming up with a plan of action that we have elicited from them. So we can talk about different options, but we really are about that teen coming up with a plan that feels right for them. And we would never … Let’s say a kid calls us. They’ve run to Las Vegas. They want to go back home. You know, we’ll talk about what were the circumstances around their running away from home in the first place, and if they say, “But I just want to get back home. I’m afraid what my mom’s going to say.” We’ll do whatever it takes, like a conference call with the parent, and then, you know, if they say, “Yes, I want to go back home,” then we’ll do what we can to help them get back home. Or to, you know, a shelter or whatever. One of the things that’s important to note though is that we did a report on our statistics from 2015, and what we found is that we are getting more contacts from young people that are still at home. And so I don’t want to paint the picture that we wouldn’t talk to young people who are at home and struggling, because a lot of them haven’t taken that leap to run from home, but they’re just looking for a safe place that they can call, that they know it’s anonymous for them, we keep what they say confidential, and we are here for them 24 hours a day. And honestly, sometimes, it’s just they need somebody to listen who they feel really cares.
GONZALEZ: That sounds like a really, really good resource. So if people wanted to learn more about you, you’ve mentioned the website a few times, but let’s say it one more time so they know exactly how to contact you.
BLAHA: Absolutely. It’s www.1800runaway.org. And our phone number’s pretty easy to remember. It’s 1-800-RUNAWAY.
GONZALEZ: Excellent. OK. Any last thoughts or any other messages that you would want to send out to parents or teachers or even kids who happen to be listening to this?
BLAHA: What I’d like to say is that if you are struggling with your son or daughter and you want to bounce some things off, we are here for adults as well as children and that we are free, confidential, here to listen and here to help 24 hours a day.
GONZALEZ: Fantastic. Thank you so much, Maureen. I really hope that this information helps somebody out there.
BLAHA: I do too. Thank you, Jennifer. I really appreciate what you’re doing in helping us to educate about this wonderful resource.
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