The number of youth under age 15 who contacted the National Runaway Safeline soared by 53% during the pandemic, from 3,500 in 2019 to 5,366 in 2021, according to a report released last week. Children ages 12-14 are now the National Runaway Safeline's fastest growing population.
Within the 53% increase, youth under 12 years of age contacting the safety line jumped an “alarming” 153%, from 284 in 2019 to 718 in 2021. The safeline called the overall jump in young people under age 15 reaching out for help a "dramatic increase."
The percentage of children who cited family dynamics as their reason for calling rose from 57% to 85%, and those citing emotional abuse jumped 20% to 32%, in the two-year span. The percentage of children reporting physical abuse nearly doubled from 12% to 24% from 2019 to 2021, while those reaching out due to mental health reasons increased 40% between the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021.
The increase in youth contacting the National Runaway Safeline is consistent with school districts identifying nearly 95,000 unaccompanied homeless youth in the 2020-21 school year, said a U.S. Department of Education spokesperson.
Susan Frankel, chief executive officer for the National Runaway Safeline, said the COVID-19 pandemic played a role in the rising numbers, with lockdowns resulting in young people being cut off from healthy relationships and resources. "So not being in a classroom and not having access to teachers, guidance counselors, school counselors, social workers, etc, we think really was a pretty significant contribution," Frankel said.
Children also had more access to technology during the pandemic, Frankel said.
"The pretty significant rise in the 10-to-14-year-old age group is particularly concerning for us, with [this age group of callers] skewing younger," said Frankel. "Not only is it a concern by virtue of sheer age where these young people would be at in their development and lifespan, but what that potentially would mean for the future needs if we're not focusing on early intervention and support for those younger people."
The increase in children contacting the safeline who needed crisis intervention for mental health reasons is also concerning, but reflects broader trends nationwide, Frankel said.
Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, which advocates for homeless youth in the education system, called the increase "upsetting." However, Duffield said, it aligns with what school districts' homeless liaisons are saying — that there are more homeless youth who are on their own at a younger age.
School personnel are key to connecting these students to resources, Duffield added.
Frankel agreed schools "are a critical link" the National Runaway Safeline should be working with and said the group is looking to build relationships with McKinney-Vento liaisons and state coordinators. The safeline is a federal government resource for runaway and homeless youth, and is "there to connect youth with resources and tools to help them find safety and support,” said January Contreras, assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families, in a statement.
"Most of these young people will show up [to school] or have access to resources available in the school system," Frankel said.
School districts should provide the same services to unaccompanied youth as they do for other homeless children, Duffield said. McKinney-Vento serves as a sort of "safety net" for these students, who, under federal law, have rights including choosing which school they attend or bringing disputes against the school district, she added.
"So there's a stronger role for stronger protections for homeless youth who are homeless on their own under federal law," Duffield said.
Frankel said it's a challenge to make sure schools are "even aware of some of the resources that are available" for this younger age group.
"We have to do more in having everybody understand what the scope of resources are and how different entities plug into what those resources are," said Frankel.
The Education Department stressed that the American Rescue Plan Homeless Children and Youth funding, for which $800 million was earmarked during pandemic recovery efforts, prioritizes the increased identification of homeless students — including those who are unaccompanied — and connecting them to wraparound services such as stable housing and enrichment programs.
The department spokesperson said many states plan to focus on outreach and identification of unaccompanied homeless youth specifically.
The National Runaway Safeline’s services can be accessed via its hotline at 1-800-RUNAWAY, or online at 1800RUNAWAY.org.