Thursday, May 19, 2011

National Runaway Switchboard: Interview with Maureen Blaha

[Episode 67] Today's episode of the Social Work Podcast is an interview with Maureen Blaha, the Executive Director of the National Runaway Switchboard ( So, if you're a social worker and you work in outpatient or inpatient or residential or you're in a school-based setting and you have a client who says I'm out of here. I am running away from home or maybe they don't even say I'm out of here. Maybe they're saying I don't know how I can live with my parents here. So, what do you do? What are some resources for you? If you're in a school setting and you're working with groups of kids, are there curricula that you can get a hold of, free curricula that you can use with your clients?

Well, these are all setup questions because, of course, the answers are in today's episode of the Social Work Podcast. Maureen Blaha, the Executive Director, talks about the National Runaway Switchboard which was established in 1971 and serves as the federally-designated national communication system for homeless and runaway youth. Recognized as the oldest hotline of its kind in the world, NRS with the support of more than 150 volunteers handles an average of 100,000 calls annually. NRS provides crisis intervention, referrals to local resources and education and prevention services to youth, families and community members throughout the country 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Over 13,000 youth have been reunited with their families through the NRS home free program done in collaboration with Greyhound Lines, Inc. The NRS Crisis Hotline is 1-800-RUNAWAY and for more information, you can visit their website at

In today's interview, Maureen and I talked a little bit about what's different for kids who are runaways and homeless today than in 1971 when the Switchboard was established. We also talked about why the end of the school year is an at risk time for teens in crisis and talk about some signs the parents can look for, what things parents, teachers and adults can do to address this issue of teens in crisis. She talks a little bit about the use of social media including a new live chat service that has been implemented on the website and how that's a way to connect with teens who maybe don't feel comfortable calling but who feel very comfortable chatting. And finally, we talked a little bit about how they got Chris "Ludacris" Bridges involved to do their most recent public service announcement.

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Maureen Blaha is the executive director of the National Runaway Switchboard (NRS), a position she has held since November 2000. Blaha first demonstrated a strong commitment to youth and family issues as director of the statewide child abuse program for the Children’s Home and Aid Society of Illinois. Prior to that, she served as the legislative liaison for the Massachusetts Office for Children, a child advocacy and regulatory agency. Blaha is a co-creator of the Blue Bow Campaign for Child Abuse Prevention (Illinois) and the Great American Wagon Pull: Families Pulling Together to Prevent Child Abuse, and is a founding member of the National Family Support Roundtable


Jonathan Singer: Maureen, thanks so much for joining us on the Social Work Podcast. You know, the National Runaway Switchboard was established in 1971 and I know that it was a very different era, you know, time. Nixon was president. We were still in Vietnam. The Beatles had just broken up and I was wondering if you could provide a little historical context, you know, really what was different for runaway youth in 1971 than today.

Maureen Blaha: In 1971, the National Runaway Switchboard was really founded in Chicago as a local hotline and it was in response to a group of providers who worked with at risk youth and some of those who ran from home and it was really the thought that if there was an opportunity for kids to reach out to one phone number, one place that that would be a good thing to provide some crisis intervention and get these teens into the kinds of services that could be helpful. Then we jump ahead three years to 1974 when Congress passed the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act and that was really an acknowledgement that kids that run from home were not bad kids but that was really often a cry for help and these were not kids that should be involved in the juvenile justice system.

And so this whole myriad of services to serve this runaway and homeless youth population was developed including an opportunity for a national hotline and MetroHelp at that time applied for and got the grant and there thousands and thousands of calls that came in in that pilot period and so it was decided that this was a good thing to have this national communication system. Now, when I look back at the statistics from as far back as we have them, the reality is that it hasn’t the rationale, the reasons that kids are running haven't changed that dramatically. The number one reason that teens call the National Runaway Switchboard is because of family dynamics and that has not changed through the years.

Jonathan Singer: When you say family dynamics, what's an example?

Maureen Blaha: One example is that there's a lot of fighting that’s going on in the home and the adolescent is feeling, you know, just stressed by that. There may end up being a divorce that again the teen is feeling like well, maybe I had something to do with it. If I left the situation, maybe things would get better or there may be a new parent, stepparent in the mix and, again, when you think about adolescence and all of the changes that they're going through, they're kind of wondering how do they fit into this new family structure but the other reality is that in some places it's abuse that’s going on in the home and these kids are running. They don’t want to be subjected to that anymore or kids are being thrown out of their homes and often that can relate back to their sexual identity.

Jonathan Singer: So, for example, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender youth who are – the parents say I don’t agree with this. I don’t believe you. Get out.

Maureen Blaha: Exactly.

Jonathan Singer: You know, you’ve mentioned a couple of different ideas that I think are really interesting. You’ve talked about runaway youth, youth who are homeless and then youth who are thrown out and I’m wondering are those the same kids? Are these the same ideas that are used interchangeably or is a runaway kid different than a homeless kid, different than a throwaway kid?

Maureen Blaha: Well, let's start with the throwaway. That really is a child that the parent is saying you're no longer welcome here. So even if the National Runaway Switchboard’s goal is to reunite families, we certainly recognize that going home is not always an option. So, in fact, when we look at our statistics, there are statistics that where kids when they call will identify as being a throwaway. The runaway youth are, you know, those that take the step to run from home, once they're away from home well, they're homeless. You know, they are – it's not the same scenario as a homeless family that because of economics have lost their home and it's a whole family looking for shelter, this is on the street perhaps and needing safe shelter.

Jonathan Singer: That’s really helpful. Thank you for making those distinctions because they do sound like there are some differences but the basic idea is that you have kid who is no longer in the home for various reasons.

Maureen Blaha: Yes.

Jonathan Singer: One thing that I thought was really interesting from your website was that you say that the end of the school year significantly increases the risk for runaway, same with the beginning of the school year. Why is that?

Maureen Blaha: Well, we believe that this is when there is a change in routine that that can cause stress for a lot of adolescents. Let's talk about this time of year which is the end of the school year. It may be that things aren't going so well at home and here is this, you know, prospect of two and half to three months of being home and that’s not feeling quite right for this adolescent or there could be an expectation that this youth would have gotten a job either by pressure from the parents or pressure themselves, they're not – that they can't make that work. Jobs are tough these days to find for youth in particular and so because their coping mechanism is still aren't as fine tuned as adults, they often feel that, you know, taking off is a better option and when they're under stress that’s what happens and there is stress that is caused by changes in routines. Again, in this case sort of the end of the school year.

Jonathan Singer: Now, do you also find that there's just a weather effect, you know, because it's warmer and it's easier to not be in the home because it's not freezing cold and you're not worried about, you know, getting frost bite that kids are more likely to just leave and stay out and that’s why they're no longer in the home?

Maureen Blaha: Well, I do believe that that could have something to do with it. I don’t know that there's been a lot of research on that. You know, one of the things is that of course we're national so, you know, we get calls all year long from even warm climates as well. What I think is true about climate though is that some of the survival techniques may be different.

Jonathan Singer: Could you talk a little bit about that?

Maureen Blaha: So, for example, if there is a teen that’s run from home in Chicago in the winter, it's not going to take him very long before he realizes that he can't survive on the streets. If you're talking about a teen in say Miami, Florida, you know, there may be parks that they could live in. I know that in Oregon there are, you know, places that teens do congregate where they're camping out and that might be of course in weather that permits. So, you know, I think that that will play a part but what is absolutely true is that for kids that run from home, they end up on the street that is not a safe environment for America’s youth. In fact, initially they become very vulnerable to be victims of crime and the longer they're on the streets they'll do just about anything to survive.

Jonathan Singer: And it sounds like the National Runaway Switchboard has developed some new technology to connect with these kids. There's a live chat service that you have. Could you talk about what that is and how you decided to launch it?

Maureen Blaha: Absolutely. We are constantly – you know, one of the things that you would ask me at the beginning of the interview is what's really changed in the runaway population and although their reasons for running may not change, the way that they are seeking help may have changed and so with the proliferation of social media and technology, the National Runaway Switchboard wants to be as relevant as possible. So, to that end we are doing much more now with social media and then just recently had an opportunity to set up this live chat which is really our instant messaging so that it is yet another way for kids in a difficult situation to connect with a trusting adult who is there to help. We also believe that for some youth, picking up the phone maybe somewhat intimidating, you know, they’ve got to share their story, kind of talk about why they're calling where it may feel a little less intimidating to do an instant message.

Jonathan Singer: Yeah and I can see because, you know, kids these days are used to texting. They're used to IMing. That’s how they communicate. Kids don’t call anymore. You know, there's this misconception that when you give a kid a cellphone, they're going to use it as a phone and in fact it's an internet device with a keypad. It absolutely meets the kids where they are in terms of their use of technology. So, a kid leaves home, at what point would they call the Runaway Hotline?

Maureen Blaha: That’s great question Jonathan and our historical data indicate that most of the youth that call the National Runaway Switchboard, our niche seems to be those kids that are away from home within the first one to three days. Now, that’s not to say that we don’t also get calls from kids that have been away from home for a long time but it seems that most of our callers based on our data call within the first one to three days. And one of the things I do want to talk a little bit about is we had gotten funding to do this very amazing research that isn't – there's not a lot of research done on this population so we were very excited about it and this research included face to face interviews with teens that were in shelters and on the streets and one of the things that we did talk about is, you know, what might be the barriers to asking for help but how would you want to help, ask for help and the high majority of those that responded to that said that when they really wanted how they did want to have a conversation either face to face or over the phone with a trusting adult. So, even though they communicate quite extensively using social media and other technology, when they are in a difficult situation, the majority say that they want to talk to a trusting person.

Jonathan Singer: That’s really encouraging because I would imagine it would be – it will be really difficult to share the subtleties of what your experience is like 48 hours after leaving home 160 characters at a time or in a chat box.

Maureen Blaha: Right and for us at the National Runaway Switchboard, you know, we – not that we can't come across as non-judgmental and supportive in our live chat but, you know, the tone of voice and, you know, we're here to help and, you know, sometimes what we find with our callers is they might not say anything for a while. They're kind of just on the call and we can be patient and say we're here to listen, take your time. You know, you lose that when it is through the other means of connecting.

Jonathan Singer: Right because if you're on chat and you don’t respond for three seconds then somebody thinks that you're gone.

Maureen Blaha: Exactly.

Jonathan Singer: Absolutely. So, beside live chat, how else can runaways’ friends and families reach out to the National Runaway Switchboard for help?

Maureen Blaha: Well, the live chat – also our website which is where the live chat of course is housed but there's lots of opportunities on our website that include crisis email so a youth could send us an email and we'll respond. We have a bulletin board where an anonymous posting can go up and we can respond and other teens across the country can respond. We have a great youth-centric section of our website which is an ezine where there are articles that are relevant to teens today and there's blogging on there. So, it's an opportunity for youth to connect as well. And then our website has lots and lots of information, tips for parents, tips for educators, a great section for the media. So, there's a wealth of information there.

Jonathan Singer: Now, if I were a parent – let me say this a different way. When I was preparing for this interview, I thought about the Beatles song She’s Leaving Home…

Maureen Blaha: Mm-hmm.

Jonathan Singer: … which has that great, you know, image of the girl she writes note hoping to explain things to her parents. She leaves. The mom finds the note. She’s totally shocked, has no idea this was happening. She breaks down and cries and then she says how could you do this to me basically. Are parents usually surprised that their kid runs away? Like would they turn to the National Runaway Switchboard website because they were shocked that their kid ran away or do parents come to the site because they're afraid that their kid might be taking off and so they're looking for, you know, signs or signals to let them know what's going on?

Maureen Blaha: Well, I think that both of those things. I also think that parents reach out to us probably more often by calling than going to the website but they reach out when their child has run from home and they are, you know, facing every parents’ worst nightmare, what do I do now. So, we talk with parents about the situation and some of them are surprised. Some of them once we probe a little more kind of begin to acknowledge that maybe there were some warning signs that they missed but we encourage them to file a missing children’s – missing person’s report for example immediately because with children there is no waiting period and then we can link them with resources that help to locate children. That’s not our job but we do have resources.

So, the one thing that we have for parents also is that they can call and leave a message for their child that has run and we encourage the parent to call all of their child’s friends to say there is a message waiting and we will do that message relay back and forth for a while and then ultimately offer to do a mediated conference call to begin that direct communication between the parent and the child.

Jonathan Singer: Well, that sounds like an incredibly valuable service. What a great idea. You know, that question makes me think of the folks who listen to the Social Work Podcast, typically social workers and other helping professionals, how would helping professionals use this resource? How can they most effectively use the resources that are on the website and use the phone number? What would you like to see social workers do with this information?

Maureen Blaha: Well, one of the things that we want is to make sure that all social workers are aware of this service. We know that lots of them are and that it's a resource that they can share with the people that they work with, you know, both teens and adults as well and that we would encourage social workers to visit the website to see about recent, you know, trends and research that we've done as well as tips for people working with kids. We also have the runaway prevention curriculum and if their social worker is in a school setting to maybe think about if they or one of their colleagues could implement the curriculum that has 14 modules that can be used separately or together that really touch on all issues that kids are dealing with from anger management to runaway reality to internet safety and so that’s something that is free of charge available on our website or they could call and we would send them a disk with that information.

Jonathan Singer: Wow, okay, that’s great. That’s great. Now, you have this public service announcement, this PSA with Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and I was wondering how did you connect with Ludacris to do this PSA?

Maureen Blaha: Well, you know, that’s a great question and he has become quite a passionate speaker and very engaged in this issue and it all started back in 2006 when he released his song called Runaway Love that you may or may not remember. It was a Grammy winning song and the Runaway Love song and then the video really was depicting issues that youth face that ultimately could result in a runaway episode and coincidentally he really sought us out. He was looking for an organization to connect with that he felt was, you know, a good one to partner and so we connected with him and the Ludacris Foundation ( and he has been involved with our organization ever since and like I said a passionate spokesperson about this issue. He is featured in our new public service announcement that we have both running on television and radio and it's really because he wants kids to know that they are not alone and that there is a place that they can turn to for help, the National Runaway Switchboard.

Jonathan Singer: That’s great. It sounds like the National Runaway Switchboard is doing just amazing stuff in terms of connecting parents and kids, providing resources for kids, resources for service providers and getting celebrities involved which in this day and age if you don’t have a celebrity like you're just not on the radar. So, I think that’s fantastic.

Maureen Blaha: You know, Jonathan, I have to tell you that we typically handle over 100,000 calls a year. At the peak when Runaway Love was being played all over the place and the video was being played all over the place, that year we handled 176,000 calls. So, the impact that a celebrity has is beyond even what we had ever imagined.

Jonathan Singer: Wow, that’s amazing and I suspect that means that kids weren’t running away because of the song but rather kids who had run away were reaching out, we're saying hey, I’m out here so can I have some help.

Maureen Blaha: Exactly, because that’s somebody that, you know, kids relate to and he was sort of hip in saying, you know, there's help and you're not alone and so it was not just the kids that ran away but kids that were struggling with some kind of situation and thought you know what if he says this is a good place to call, I guess it is.

Jonathan Singer: Just one last question before we go and I appreciate your time. I know you're very busy. You're doing a whole string of interviews today. Do you have any tips or advice for ways that service providers, parents, teachers, adults or anyone else who is involved with youth can combat the runaway crisis in the United States?

Maureen Blaha: Well, one of the things is that I think it's incumbent upon all of us to understand the depth of this problem and again to not take it lightly if a child of yours or a teen that providers are working for talks about wanting to plea or wanting to run. What we have learned is that that needs to be taken very seriously, that often it is again a warning sign to parents and others as well and that, you know, sit down and talk with that child, find out what's going on, call the National Runaway Switchboard or resources. We have 13,000 resources in our database that touch on a myriad of issues that children may be dealing with.

Jonathan Singer: That’s fantastic. I know that when I work with kids and they say that that they're going to leave the home, I always say, you know, there are two ways to leave. You can either burn bridges or you can make a graceful exit and if you really got to go, let's make a plan with your family so that at least you can come back and…

Maureen Blaha: That’s really – that’s wisdom – that’s terrific. I know one of our parents – we had reunited a family and the mother called us to thank us. We don’t always hear back from people and that’s okay, that’s kind of we know our job is crisis intervention but this particular mother called back and she said I am telling all of my friends and my kids’ friends to put 1-800-RUNAWAY on their gym shoes in case they run then at least they know a safe place to call.

Jonathan Singer: That’s beautiful. I can't imagine a better ending to the interview than that. Maureen, thank you so much for taking the time and talking with us today about the National Runaway Switchboard.

Maureen Blaha: Well, thank you Jonathan. You were very thoughtful in your questions and I really – I have to say I was so intrigued when you talked about what the reality was in 1971. I don’t think I ever thought of it in those terms of, you know, the Beatles breaking up and Nixon was president so you kind of got me thinking. Thank you.

Jonathan Singer: Well, that’s great. Well, you know, when I saw the name, I always thought of it as the National Runaway Hotline…

Maureen Blaha: Mm-hmm.

Jonathan Singer: … and in fact I titled my crib sheets National Runaway Hotline but then when I was reading the information, I saw that it was the Switchboard…

Maureen Blaha: Mm-hmm.

Jonathan Singer: … and I thought wow, Switchboard, that’s a word you don’t hear very often these days.

Maureen Blaha: That’s true.

Jonathan Singer: And this image of, you know, the switchboard operators like saying one moment, please hold.

Maureen Blaha: I know. I know.

Jonathan Singer: So, it just – it was like this was a different time and era, you know. Well, so anyway Maureen, thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time and talking with us today.

Maureen Blaha: Thank you Jonathan. Take care.



APA (6th ed) citation for this podcast:

Singer, J. B. (Producer). (2011, May 19). #67 - National Runaway Switchboard: Interview with Maureen Blaha [Episode 67]. Social Work Podcast [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from

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