AUSTIN (KXAN) — Last month, Karin and Manfredo found themselves in the middle of a crisis when their daughter didn’t come home from school.

“She was supposed to just come home on the bus,” Karin said.

But when that didn’t happen on Sept. 30, the parents started to panic, fearing their 14 year old may have been kidnapped.

“Friday evening was terrifying,” Karin said. “It was so bad,” Manfredo added.

After contacting the police and as many friends as they could, the two realized their daughter had run away.

“She did send messages through a couple of friends saying she was safe,” Karin said.

The two think part of the reason behind their child running away has to do with the pandemic’s impact on her mental health.

“As many children, you know, [she] really struggled during the pandemic,” Karin said. “When she went back to in-person school … she basically had a complete kind of breakdown.”

They explained she had been seeing a counselor through her anxiety, depression and two suicide attempts.

“She seemed to be doing pretty well. In the spring and summer, she seemed to be coming out of that and healing and starting to adjust better to life as a teenager,” Karin recalled.

But they said she fell into the wrong group of friends at school and started skipping classes.

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services said it’s seen a 67% increase in call volume to its Texas Youth Helpline between last year and this year.

The hotline offers free and confidential resources to young people in crisis and their family members who need help finding a counselor, safe shelter, legal information or someone to simply talk to.

The agency said texts and chat messages to the helpline have also increased by 58% year-over-year.

DFPS said the requests are a combination of those running away and, more often, young people and families who need help with family conflict or mental health concerns.

“We think that’s mostly due to more effective advertising people are more aware of the helpline, and possibly in part due to some lingering effects of the COVID pandemic,” said Marissa Gonzales, a DFPS spokesperson. “Certainly, I think there have been more families who have experienced crises during a difficult time, and the helpline is here to help.”

Terry Cole, the founder of Austin’s Street Youth Ministry, said the number of families reaching out to them seeking help locating runaways has doubled since the beginning of the pandemic.

Cole said he’d be surprised if the pandemic hasn’t had anything to do with it.

“Everybody is on edge,” he said. “Mental health has spiked because of the pandemic.”

He said people are also stressed out due to their financial situation from the pandemic and the current economy.

Karin and Manfredo said their daughter had found a way to change their iCloud passwords and block them from calling her.

Manfredo made a Snapchat account and messaged his daughter from there, asking if he could talk to her over ice cream on Tuesday. She agreed.

“It’s my daughter. I mean, that’s the most precious thing I got. [I told her] that I need her,” Manfredo said.

Eventually, their daughter agreed to come home that day, five long days after she had run away.

The parents are still working on their relationship with their child and know she’s at risk of running away again. They said they’re utilizing DFPS’s helpline.

“How we should try to direct the conversation, to take lots of breaks if anyone starts getting emotional,” Karin said. “That we had to just keep our cool when she came home. So, just really kind of giving us advice about how to deal with when she came back.”

What they wish they knew

Karin and Manfredo said they wanted to share their experience to help other families who may be going through something similar.

“One thing I’ve learned from this experience is you should know … who your kids’ friends are and who their parents are and get phone numbers and addresses,” Karin said.

She said there was only so much police could do, saying they couldn’t arrest or restrain their daughter.

“In the end, you know, it was a combination of people. People who knew her, reaching out to her and helping convince her … including parents of some of her friends talking to their kids and saying, ‘Look, you know it’s not okay,'” Karin explained.

She said the bottom line is trying to convince your child to come home on their own.

“If someone is a runaway, you have to convince them to come home. Like that’s the only solution,” she said. “We love you. Your parents love and support you and we just want you to be safe and we want you to be home again.”

“The purpose in this life is our children,” Manfredo said.

Even more of an increase expected

Cole said they expect to see more runaways soon.

“In past episodes of financial meltdown, we haven’t seen an increase in unaccompanied youth and adults until about 18 months after the peak of the recession or depression,” Cole said.

He explained many young people leave home, because they don’t want to be a burden on the rest of their family members.

LifeWorks, another Austin group that advocates for young people, also reported an increase in runaway homeless youth.

The group said between October 2020 to September 2021, it helped seven clients. Last fiscal year, between October 2021 to September 2022, it served 13 runaway homeless youth.

A spokesperson for LifeWorks said they couldn’t speculate on what caused their increase.