When my son ran away...

At 7:45 p.m. on August 1996, I received a call that began a parent's nightmare. My 15 year old son had run away from camp. In the dead of night, he had slipped away from his camp in the Idaho desert and was apparently wandering lost in an inhospitable wilderness.

For the next few hours, I paced the family room, my heart in my throat, willing the phone to ring. Finally, I got the call from Idaho. He had been spotted at a truck stop at a nearby town. Blessed with determination and an uncanny sense of direction, he had managed to navigate ten miles out of the desert in the darkness, then had taken a staff member's bike to make the fifteen mile trek to the nearest town. Unfortunately, he had ditched the bike at the truck stop, and had probably hitched a ride with one of the truckers. Although some remembered seeing him, no one had seen him leave. The trail was cold.

Half an hour later the phone rang again. At the sound of my son's voice, I felt such a rush of emotions I could barely speak. The thought that the phone call could literally have life-or-death consequences for my son, that if I said the wrong thing I might never hear from him again, overwhelmed me. As we spoke, I groped my way, relying on my maternal instinct to say the right thing. He told me about his "escape". From the truck stop, he had hitched a ride with a trucker. No, he wouldn't tell me where he was, but wanted to let me know he was safe, that he loved me, and that he would keep in touch. He sounded both exhilarated by the adventure and his newfound freedom, and scared to death of the uncertainty and potential dangers of his situation. I listened to everything he said, tried to convey my unconditional love, and, as calmly as possible, tried to convince him to go back to Idaho or to come home. After fifteen minutes, he said he had to hang up because the truck driver was ready to go, but that he would call me again soon.

I immediately rang the staff in Idaho to let them know I had heard from my son. Then, realizing that he was using the calling card I had given him, I contacted the customer service representative. Calling up the last few calls made on my account on her screen, she was able to pinpoint his location to a commercial phone in a small town about three hours from the camp in Idaho. I quickly passed the information on to the staff in Idaho, and two of the men raced off to try to find him. Hours later, they called back to let me know they had scoured the town, but had come up empty.

During the next few days, my son called me several times to let me know he was still okay. With the help of the calling card system representative, I was able to follow his route west to Portland, Oregon. At home in Pennsylvania, I wanted to jump in my car and drive the width of the country to find my son and bring him home, but knew chances of finding him and then convincing him to come home with me were slim.

Once in Portland, he found a group of runaways who showed him the ropes of living on the street. Portland had a relatively large runaway population with established social services and crisis centers. Again the calling card people were able to let me know what areas he called from. Unfortunately, the numbers were never private phone numbers, but always pay phones located in different parts of the city. My son kept moving, and although I was so grateful for his calls which let me know he was still alive, I realized that I was probably not going to be able to pin him down to any location.

Although he always talked as though his life was an exciting adventure, sometimes the emotion in his voice betrayed him, and I wanted so much to be able to reach out and give him a hug. Always I controlled what I said, trying to say just the right words that might bring him back home, or at the very least would encourage him to keep in touch with me.

Through my library's Portland phone directory, I found the number of the Portland Police Department runaway officer, contacted her, and sent photos of my son. I also located agencies in Portland that help runaways and are willing to post messages, and sent them messages in the hope that someone who knew him might call and help me locate him, or convince him to come home.

Time went by, with the phone lines my lifeline to my son. In the stores, in my neighborhood, I saw other mothers with their sons, and felt pangs of grief mixed with feelings of guilt and shame. I had failed as a parent and had lost my only child. Depression hung like a dark heavy curtain over my life. Parents of a runaway grieve, but often with little support and sympathy from those around them, especially if the child has been in trouble in school or the community. Like me, they may feel isolated, not knowing any other parents who have lived through the experience.

In September, when we should have been shopping for school supplies, a local newspaper in a section of Portland ran a story on runaways. The reporter and photographer spent time with some of the runaways, including my son. Excited by his fame, my son told me about the article and I sent for a copy of the issue. The photos used in the story showed me his new life, his "family" of runaways, and the squat under the bridge he and his young friends called home. The story confirmed the dangers of life on the street, painting in all too vivid details what until then had only been my imagined fears.

Through the email address listed in the newspaper, I contacted the reporter, who was kind enough to reply. He had spent a day with my son, and was able to fill me in on his life on the street and how he was coping. One thing in the reporter's message struck me. He said that too often parents opt for the "let 'em run wild" approach, thinking that the streets will knock some sense into them. Unfortunately, for a while the dangers of the street life can seem adventurous and romantic to the runaways. By the time they return home, many have serious problems: alcohol and drug addiction, other physical and mental problems, and legal troubles. Most dropped out of school long before graduation, and face problems picking up where they left off in school.

Not long after I heard from the reporter, I got another call in the middle of the night. This time it was from the Portland Police Runaway Office. The police had picked up my son for littering. Did I want them to hold him? For me, happiness was hearing that my son had been arrested. For the first time in months, he was safe.

Two days after my son was picked up, one of his street friends passed through detention and told him the bad news. The night my son was taken off the streets by the police, his friends had been attacked while they slept under the bridge by two men with heavy metal pipes. Some of the runaways had been hospitalized, others had fought back and had been arrested on assault charges.

That was five years ago. These days my son lives the typical life of a college student not far from his home. He limits his travelling adventures to his computer and his Internet connection. Although he undoubtedly has many stories to tell of his time as a runaway, when I ask if he wants to add his story, he declines saying only that he would rather forget that time in his life. And I certainly won't argue with that.

 

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