CHICAGO – The young caller's voice is high-pitched and trembling.
Her mother's been drinking, she says. They got into a fistfight, so the girl grabbed her backpack and a cell phone and bolted, with little thought about where a 13-year-old could go on a cold night.
Hiding in an alley off her rural hometown's deserted main street, she calls the only phone number she can think of: 1-800-RUNAWAY.
"I just don't feel like I'm taken care of like a daughter should be," the girl tells the volunteer who answers the phone at the National Runaway Switchboard. She stutters between sobs and shivers.
Her story is a common one at the Chicago-based hot line, which handles well over 100,000 calls each year, many from troubled young people who are dealing with increasingly difficult issues.
National Runaway Switchboard data provided exclusively to The Associated Press shows that the overall number of young callers facing crises that jeopardized their safety rose from 13,650 in 2000 to 15,857 last year. About two-thirds of the latter figure were young people who were thinking of running away, had already done so or had been thrown out of the house.
Federally funded since the 1970s, the National Runaway Switchboard is regarded by people who work with troubled youth as an organization that provides one of the best overviews of the shadowy world of teenage runaways, which is difficult to track.
The group's statistics showed that callers are getting younger and that 6,884 crisis callers last year said they had been abused or neglected, compared with 3,860 in 2000. That is a 78 percent increase.
Some callers just want someone to talk to, about problems at home or with friends. Others who have already run away use the hot line to exchange messages with their families — to let them know they're OK, or to arrange a free bus ticket home.
Some are desperate for a place to stay, for safety, for options.
"I'm scared of my parents, and I don't want to go back there. Please don't make me!" pleaded the 13-year-old girl who called this particular night.
The information she gave the hot line checked out. However, her name and other identifying details could not be included for this story because the National Runaway Switchboard guarantees callers confidentiality.
It also quickly became apparent to volunteer Megan McCormick — who has been trained to spot the occasional crank call — that this girl's fear was real.
"I know it must be really scary," said McCormick, a graduate student in social work at the University of Chicago. As they spoke, she checked the call center's extensive computer database for shelters in the girl's hometown.
The closest was in a larger city, 40 minutes away. But when McCormick called, she was told they didn't take anyone younger than 14.
Such scenarios are common in many regions of the country, particularly rural areas where resources for runaways are scarce. Further complicating the matter, the Runaway Switchboard has found that more crisis callers than ever are 14 and younger — 1,255 in that age group in 2000, compared with 1,844 last year.
"The reality is, there are not always services available for kids who are calling," says Maureen Blaha, executive director of the National Runaway Switchboard, which began as a Chicago area crisis hot line in 1971 and went national three years later. "We try to be as creative as we can be to find solutions. But there isn't always a simple answer."
Others in the youth services field concur.
They note that while the number of shelters and other organizations that help runaways have slowly increased over the decades, they have been unable to keep pace with the demand. Many institutions also lack the resources to deal with the severity of issues young people face today.
"The population is much more disturbed than the runaways who were being seen 20 or 30 years ago," says Victoria Wagner, chief executive of the National Network for Youth, a coalition of agencies that serve troubled young people. "There are more mental health issues, more substance abuse, more coming from violent home situations."
Long-standing government support for the Runaway Switchboard has been a vital component in addressing the problem, Wagner says. But, she adds, federal dollars for shelters and other services, also through the Runaway Youth Act, have remained largely stagnant since it first passed in the 1970s. So she and others are pressing Congress for more.
It's a tough sell in trying economic times. But the irony, Wagner says, is that when people are unemployed and families are struggling, young people are even more likely to have reason to run.
The 13-year-old girl who has called the Runaway Switchboard sounds even more anguished when McCormick tells there are no shelters in her area that will take her.
"So there's nowhere I can go?" she says in disbelief.
Several times McCormick asks about other options, but the girl says she has none.
She says her friends' parents would only take her back home. Relatives, whom she rarely sees, live out of state. And she seems even more afraid of her father than her mom, claiming that her parents divorced because he was abusive.
Even so, she has little doubt that one or both of her parents will soon be out looking for her.
That's not the case for many other runaways, who are thrown out of home for anything from being gay to exhibiting aggressive behavior.
"Ninety-eight percent of the time, it's the parents saying, `No, take them.' They're the throwaway kids," says Bill Hogan, program manager at the Haven W. Poe Runaway Shelter in Tampa, Fla. He recently reunited a 10-year-old boy with his grandmother, who had told police to keep him.
Neglect also has changed the face of the runaway, says Kathleen Boutin, executive director of the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth, which is getting more requests for help from children of methamphetamine addicts.
For those 12 to 18, Nevada now has a "Right to Shelter" law, which allows organizations to provide emergency housing, food and clothing without parental consent.
Indiana is another state that recently passed a comprehensive law for homeless youth with a similar provision, but limited the age to 16 and older.
"It's a beginning," says Cynthia Smith, executive director of the Youth Service Bureau in Evansville, Ind. Right now, her area has no youth shelter — but she hopes the new law will help change that.
In New York, however, a bill requiring safe-houses and other services for sexually exploited youth stalled in January. And in Wyoming, runaways often still spend the night in jail.
It's a mind-set that Rusty Booker, an 18-year-old former runaway from Louisville, Ky., hopes will change.
Last year, he told members of Congress how, at age 12, he ran away from an abusive home. He got help at a library affiliated with National Safe Place, an organization with more than 16,000 locations nationally where young people are put in touch with local crisis workers.
Still, many communities that want to establish Safe Places are turned down because they have few or no services to offer runaways.
Nine states have no Safe Places at all. That includes the home of the 13-year-old girl who was on the line with the Runaway Switchboard for more than an hour.
Several times, she adamantly refused to call the local sheriff or to get child protective services involved.
"All this stuff that's going on, it's just really overwhelming," she told McCormick, the call center volunteer. "I don't want my mom to go to jail. I can't do that to my family."
Eventually, though, she changed her mind. She asked McCormick to stay on the line while she spoke with a county social worker and then the sheriff.
"I've kind of run away from home," the girl told the sheriff's dispatch operator. "I need somewhere to stay."
McCormick waited on the line until a sheriff's deputy found her and picked her up. Finally, the girl was safe and members of the Runaway Switchboard staff looked relieved.
"You get used to some aspects of this," says Cori Ballew, a Runaway Switchboard supervisor who oversaw the call. "But you never get used to some of it, especially when it ends with no resolution."
Some runaways, like this one, find help of some kind, she says.
Others, faced with few choices, hang up.