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Trigger Warning: Sex Trafficking
Sex trafficking is one of the most serious crimes in the world right now. But with so much obscurity surrounding it, no one pays that much attention to solving it. Melody C. Miller puts this topic into the spotlight by making it the central plot of her film California’s Forgotten Children. Joining Corinna Bellizzi, the Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker explains how she hopes to utilize her film as a tool to raise awareness about the sexual trafficking of young girls throughout the world. She talks about her experiences talking with real-life abuse victims and her collaboration with various organizations in putting the film together. Melody also shares tips on how to report human trafficking within your own area and the right language to use when contacting the authorities to get an apt response from them.
About Melody C. Miller
Melody C. Miller is an Emmy Award-Winning filmmaker and cinematographer. She released her first feature film California’s Forgotten Children (2018) which won Best Documentary at the Soho International Film Festival and has been impacting viewers at numerous notable film festivals around the world. The documentary screened at the United States of Women Summit and at the United States Senate encouraging policymakers in creating laws and policies to combat trafficking.
Guest LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mcmfilmmaker
Guest Social: https://www.instagram.com/melodycmiller
Additional Resources Mentioned:
Human Trafficking Hotline:
- By phone: 1-888-373-7888
- By email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- By text: text HELP to 233733 (BEFREE)
- Online chat: humantraffickinghotline.org
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
National Runaway Safeline: 800-RUN-AWAY
Previous Episode: A Safer Society: Ending Sexual Violence Through Survivors’ Stories With Tim Mousseau – https://caremorebebetter.com/a-safer-society-ending-sexual-violence-through-survivors-stories-with-tim-mousseau
00:00 – Introduction
01:50 – Melody’s inspiration and collaborations
06:33 – Corrina’s story of running away
09:46 – Supporting sexually exploited young girls
16:05 – Right language to use
21:49 – Tips for reporting human trafficking
23:56 – Film takeaways
27:39 – How to stop sex trafficking
30:52 – Film screening moments
35:50 – How to screen Melody’s film
40:30 – Melody’s future projects and breast cancer awareness
42:46 – Closing Words
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How One Film Aims To Put An End To Sex Trafficking With Melody C. Miller
I’m going to jump right into this episode because if I don’t, I might not have the same courage to continue. I should start with a bit of a trigger warning, but I want to say for everyone who reads this show for content on sustainability and climate activism, trust that this is on social impact. Everybody is impacted by where our environment is heading. I’ll get to that trigger warning.
In this episode, we are going to talk about sex trafficking. It may trigger you or trigger me. There may be tears, but I promise you, it will be worth the journey. I’m thrilled to introduce Melody Miller. She’s an Emmy award-winning filmmaker and cinematographer who released her first featured film called California’s Forgotten Children. It won the Best Documentary at Soho International Film Festival, among many other accolades. Melody Miller, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much for having me. It’s an honor to be here. Thank you all for reading to know what we have to say.
I’d like to get started by having you talk about what inspired you to tackle this difficult subject.
Many years ago, in high school, my life took an unexpected turn when I stumbled upon a documentary on child trafficking. A fire ignited within me, and I wanted to make a difference. I had to do something. I signed up for a local nonprofit in Oakland called MISSSEY, Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting, and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth. I thought I was going to be helping children in other countries like I saw in the documentary, but I was shocked to find out that students from my high school were being exploited. That blew my mind.
I dived into the cause and volunteered tirelessly with whatever they needed, like collecting general necessities, wrapping presents, fundraising, to even sweeping floors. I also took their trauma-informed training and learned how I could best support survivors in the cause. My commitment continued throughout college when I got into UCLA, and I wanted to use my skills to make a difference.
I embarked on this mission to raise awareness and give communities the tools and knowledge they needed to combat this horrific climb. I also asked the people I was working with and volunteering for what they needed as a movement or a cause. What kind of film they needed, and they helped connect me with organizations across California and prominent survivor leaders who were sharing their stories and making a difference.
I didn’t have any money at the time. I didn’t even have a car. I took buses throughout the whole thing, but I had skills, talent, and friends. The journey led to the creation of California’s Forgotten Children, and it’s become a movement. California’s Forgotten Children has reached thousands of people internationally and has helped spark awareness on child trafficking from airing on PBS to playing at the United States Senate.
Even tech giants like Facebook recognized the film’s impact and brought it in to train their staff, protect at-risk individuals, and hired survivor leaders from the film to aid them. We hosted screenings in schools, communities, government, and hospitals. I collaborated with one of the survivor leaders from the film, Rachel Thomas, who has a Master’s degree from UCLA in Education.
She helped create the trauma-informed guidebook to accompany the film. We screened over 2,000 students and gathered feedback before and after the film. We realized a lot of students were able to connect with the survivor stories in the film, whether they were commercially sexually exploited or homeless. They might’ve been abused at home, or they had friends that were going through that. Through the film, we helped recover several victims who needed help. They came forward.
Thankfully, working with Valley Crisis Center and the Merced Police Department, they were able to receive the services they needed. Gameelah Mohammed and the Valley Crisis Center were there every day during the screenings of the film and were there to support the teachers, the students, and the staff because it was shocking. Through all the screenings, people have connected with the stories being told. A lot of people were also shocked and want to get involved in the film, fundraised for safe homes and direct services, and created jobs for survivor leaders. We’ve had an amazing impact on the film, and I’m proud.
I’ve watched it already twice, and I may watch it again and in particular with one of my friend’s daughters who’s coming of age. It offers an opportunity to have a deep discussion about what even they may encounter in school. If there are warning signs and they want to help a friend or an acquaintance in need, they can be part of that support.
I do think that women need to support women, more than they might have when I was coming of age. I have to admit, I also experienced some of what I ended up reviewing in the film. Some of these stories reflected my coming of age. There’s one in particular, and I’m not going to share too much about it, but this will help people relate. You shared that you had this perception that sex trafficking was a problem of the other or outside. People are being brought in from another country and so did I before I watched your film.
To make this real for people, sex trafficking can look like a lot of the stories of molestation and rape. What happens from within your circle is somebody close to you brings you into something risky. In my case, I made a choice to run away when I was thirteen years old, which is too young to be living on the streets. Any age is not ideal. It’s because I couldn’t see a way to subsist in my home at that point. I wasn’t thinking like an adult as I thought I was at thirteen. I was thinking like a thirteen-year-old. I wanted out, and I wanted some freedom.
I perceived that by getting out, I would get some of that freedom. I was wrong, and the things that I saw over the course of a week living on the streets are chilling. Some of what I saw reflected in your film brought me back to my experiences or things that I observed when a woman was waiting out in front on a corner, essentially selling herself. It was pretty obvious that was being done. Also, the sadness of the individuals, the hopelessness, and the feeling of, “This is my only choice. I don’t have another way out,” and of not seeing another way out because you’ve been conditioned to think that there isn’t.
There is so much told through the stories in this film that help us as a community and an entire people to better understand what drives this morally reprehensible issue of pushing young girls who are children into a situation where they are essentially sold over and over again. I wanted to talk about language use. I didn’t stuff the ballot box with this, but you see these girls referring to being sold over and over again.
You have this conception, “You’re sex trafficked.” It’s like a one-time transaction, but that’s not the reality for these women. Through this film and outside of it, people understand how they can get involved and be part of the solution to help especially young girls when they’re going through puberty and starting to confront all the issues that we see in young girls. How do we help them in particular? What can we do as men and women to support their journey if they’ve been in this precarious position and are trying to rebuild their lives?
First of all, thank you for sharing your story. It can relate to a lot of people who have experienced tough times at home. As a kid, you go through so many different emotions. Sometimes, the only way out is to run away and seek somewhere else to be instead of where you’re at. That’s where a lot of you come in at home and be mentors to your family and other family members, whether it be a cousin, sister, or even your neighbor.
Also, coming to the community, being available for the youth, being a person that they could come to if they need help, knowing the resources that are out there for kids who are being abused at home or homeless kids, and helping them get back on their feet if they were out of school for two years whether it be homelessness, runaway, or being trafficked for some reason.
We mentor them, help get them back into school, apply for college, and figure out housing once they get to college. I do that too. I mentor other youth and other people who are going through that. I help them with their college application or stuff like that. I’d recommend all of you to use your skills to make a difference. I use my skills in filmmaking, but if you’re a yoga teacher, maybe you can volunteer at your local nonprofit.
They can teach yoga to the clients that they serve, a college administration could help with that, housing, or even teaching different skills like fixing a car and stuff like that. Also, providing internships, job shadows, and seeing a different opportunity than what the youth was provided before. Even people who are older experience things from when they were children.
A lot of times, after seeing the film, they realized that they were victimized. They get the support that they need from a therapist, talking with friends, or working on self-care and healing. It’s tough and horrible what you’ve been through, or anyone’s friend has been through. To start the journey of healing, you got to take care of yourself. There are a lot of different resources out there.
I would recommend that if you see a victim who’s being trafficked on the streets to first call 911 and file a police report. Generally, they will come out and then also call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888 and tell them the police report number. They will make sure to follow up with the police and connect with local nonprofits in the area to try to support that victim and get them to a safe place.
There are many police departments that are trained for trauma responses, but some aren’t, or some might have misconceptions. It’s important to follow up with the National Human Trafficking Hotline to make sure that they can send someone there. There’s also a National Runaway Safeline. It’s 800-RUNAWAY. If youth are reading this or you know someone who’s thinking about running away, they could call this number, and they won’t judge.
They could listen to whatever you got to say and help get you wherever you need to be safe. It’s 24/7 free. If you have a child that’s lost and you’re trying to find them, call 911, file a missing person report, and then call the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at 800-THE-LOST.
They’ll put the child’s picture up and send it out to all the cell phones and police departments. They’ll help keep track of kids. Sadly, if you look at that site, there are thousands of children missing, boys and girls. It’s scary. I hope we can find these kids and give them the safe homes and care that they need.
This is a question I have, and I’m not sure you have the answer, and I don’t know that anyone does. It comes to see what you might observe to be sex trafficking. Sex work is essentially illegal in most spots of the United States. How do you identify what’s willing versus unwilling? What age someone might appear as an adult and not?
If you suspect that there is a child being exploited, speaking of language, do not say prostitute because there’s no such thing as a child prostitute. It’s a legal term because they’re under the age of eighteen, so they don’t have consent. Don’t say, “Child prostitute.” Say you see a child being raped by a man multiple times and being picked up in cars. The police need to get there ASAP.
Sometimes if you say prostitution, they might not respond that well because they’re used to listening to it. It depends on how trained they are. You could change the language and describe what’s happening like, “I see someone who looks under the age of eighteen get into men’s cars and kidnapped, raped, and then brought back to the same spot. It looks like there’s a man forcing her to do it, who’s hiding around the corner. He looks like he has a gun.” Say what you’re describing.
Don’t go and get involved because you could get trafficked yourself. You could get hurt or injured. Work with local nonprofits. A lot of times, they work with the police departments, and they have planned events where they go out on the streets and talk to victims. They give them information secretly and stuff. Sometimes they put it in lipstick cans like the 800 number or in different ways. If you want to get involved in reaching out, work with a nonprofit that’s trained. You don’t want to put your life at risk, and you could also be making the situation for the victim worst.
Melody, I love how you answered that question because I’m trying to bridge this gap in our understanding. Often, people might say, “It’s not my business. She looks young to me, but maybe she’s a sex worker.” In front of that, I have problems with it too, but the reality is that often, the people being exploited are very young for a reason. They’re started that way because they’ve been groomed for it, in one way or another, often by someone close to them and in the stories of their family members.
You hate to think about these things, but the reality that we live within is that not everybody has the same way of thinking or the same opportunities in front of them. It’s this slow attrition of accepting what the norm is that you grow up within and we need to break that cycle. That means that when we do see something that doesn’t look right, we don’t assume. We can go ahead and report it.
I love the way that you said we shouldn’t be using terms like prostitute. We should say, “It looks like this girl is being forced to do this and that. She appears to be very young. I’m guessing twelve.” These things are okay. We should feel like we can have the power to say these things to stand up for one another and also to utilize the resources that are available, whether it be 1-800-RUNAWAY or a direct call to 911 saying, “I see something that’s not right. You need to get someone out here now.”
It could also be other situations. Once, I saw a man walking down the street when I was driving, and he had a hole in his pants. He was bleeding walking in broad daylight. It looked like something horrific had happened to him. I called the police and the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Sometimes people want to look away. If you can help in some way where you’re not putting yourself in danger by calling someone that could potentially help that person, it’s important.
It looked like no one was helping him at the time. He looked like he went through horrific pain. On the streets, it’s very dangerous, and there are a lot of evil, horrible people out there. It’s sad that they want to hurt and cause pain. It breaks my heart. I hope that there are more good people out there like you, readers, that can bring more goodness into the world and tell people that we won’t accept that treatment of any human being.
When I travel in airports, I’m often seeing in the bathroom stalls resources pasted on the wall for somebody who might be in a situation where they’re being trafficked or taken from one area against their will, whether it be specifically for sex traffic or some other kind of traffic. They are ultimately given resources in that way.
Often individuals in this situation, it’s not like they have a cell phone handy. If you are in this situation, are there any tips or tricks you might have for someone like, “Ask to use someone’s phone?” I don’t know. I’m wondering if you’ve come across recommendations for somebody in the situation that’s seeking to get out.
Ask someone for help that you need to call the human trafficking hotline. Also, ask airport staff. Probably there’s someone watching you if you’re traveling with someone through an airport. Try to find those discreetly. Ask for someone in the bathroom for help or someone to come in. That’s off the top of my head of what they could do.
I didn’t know if there was a broadly known code word or something like that, but then they probably would be afraid to say it.
I don’t know. However, call that number or ask someone’s phone to call that number. I know that a lot of airline staff are trained. There have been various moments where flight attendants have helped victims of human trafficking that were on the plane, helped catch the bad guys, and helped get the survivor to a safe place. Ask for help. There are so many people that care about you and love you that don’t know you and don’t want you to be going through that. There are a lot of good people in the world. Putting it out there that you need help will come.
As far as the film is concerned, what do you hope that people will walk away from the film thinking about?
First, if there are people that are enacting these acts on children or anybody, what I hope first is for them to stop doing what they’re doing. I also hope for other people to talk about it. Teach your kids about the dangers of trafficking and the different types of abuses that are out there. Encourage them to speak up if they see something wrong.
I hope that people will change how they treat one another and also, in our media, how women are depicted, the language in music is exploited, or encouraging people to human traffic other people or be a pimp. They make it so glorified and cool. They wear all this fake fur and have gold jewelry. They’re glamorizing something that is a slave owner.
They’re enslaving women, boys, and children. They are having them raped and making money off of them. It’s horrible. That shouldn’t be something cool for young kids that are 9, 10, or 7-year-olds to be singing about. It’s a great beat, but you’ve got to listen to the words. As young people standing up saying, “I’m not going to listen to or watch something that’s going to degrade me or exploit me or other people,” that’s going to help change the industry and what people are singing about.The media glamorizes the enslavement of women and children. This is something that young people should not see as cool. Click To Tweet
What more can we do to help stop human trafficking and sex trafficking?
I can make your step easy. Host the screening of our film, California’s Forgotten Children, in your community and schools. Have a discussion. Ignite your community to talk about it. Even if you’re in a different state, it’s important to start talking about the statistics and what’s going on in your state and have that conversation. Bring in local nonprofits and the police department. Get the district attorney involved and invite all of your community to come.
Ignite that and encourage them to have more events to continue the discussion. Create an anti-trafficking coalition in your community and start working with all the resources that you have. Even if you don’t have resources, outreach to other locations like other state organizations or the big national organizations. Ask for help on how you can establish more funding for safe homes, rehabilitation services, and police training.
One of the things my friend and collaborator, Gameelah Mohammed, did was created a trauma-informed interview room in the police department. When victims come in, they’re not taken to a gray concrete room with a metal table and this ugly top light scaring the heck out of them in cuffs. Instead, they’re taken to a room with a couch, a table, a fish tank, flowers, and some pictures on the wall. You sit down and have a cup of tea with a nice warm blanket and a cuddly bear. Talk to someone or the police department that way.
Somebody who’s skilled and who won’t retraumatize them. That’s the key.
Also, will make them feel more comfortable being in a safe place rather than feeling in a jail cell like they’re being criminalized. Encourage people to create a trauma-informed interview room in their police station. That’s the first step. I want to get the film into high school. We have done screenings and it’s proven that it can make a difference.
It can help anyone who’s going through something difficult that relates in any way to any of the stories, whether it be trafficking, homelessness, or something else that might be going on. You can help recover the kids and get them the resources they need but also, ignite the next generation of leaders to make a difference, put in the laws, and help put it in the system so that we can have a safer community so no child is forgotten again.
Bridging from that discussion, can you share a moment that happened specifically because the film was screened, perhaps as a result of someone watching it?
It’s almost that every screening, someone ends up coming up. We’re hugging and both crying because they were able to connect with the stories in the film. Those moments have been so powerful. It was so hard making this film. It took me five years. Listening to the stories over and over again causes vicarious trauma. I was very young when I started the film. I was 21.
I did some training in the nonprofits, but I wasn’t a therapist. I was taking in all these traumatic stories. It was a long and hard journey putting it together, but thankfully, speaking with some of the survivor leaders and telling them about how I was feeling, they’re like, “You need some self-care. You need to go have a walk in nature, focus on something different, and come back.” They share their stories or work with a lot of victims and survivors.
They were able to give me some advice on someone who’s experienced vicarious trauma to take care of themselves. Self-care. One of the most beautiful moments that I spent was with one of the survivor leaders from the film. We had a screening at Montana International Film Festival. They made this huge event. They brought in the FBI and her to speak. They paid her and flew us out. I brought a Native American community against trafficking and also the Montana human trafficking committee. They did this amazing screening.
Afterwards, they gave us a car and said, “Go to Yellowstone.” We took this road trip together after the event and went to Yellowstone. I got to ride in the car, look up at the big beautiful stars, and went horseback riding. We went to a farm and had such a wonderful time. Sometimes, this work can be heavy. Being able to be out in nature and have some positive moments of fun in nature and hiking was a wonderful memory.
Some of the people you featured in this film have gone on to be motivational speakers, even with a TEDx or something along those lines. I see that you are offering this empowerment path and this message to people who watch the film like, “Your story doesn’t have to end this way.” That is something that I can echo.
I lived on the streets for a week. I saw things in that time that I care not to repeat on this show, but the reality is that we get exposed to so much when we’re in these somewhat very unwilling situations. In my case, I was somewhat unwilling because I left. I put myself in the situation. I wasn’t pulled out. Once I was out, I’m ripe for the picking by people who would predate upon a young girl living on the streets.
We all need to understand that while you may go through trials and tribulations, and you may be in unwilling circumstances, victimized, and beaten into the ground that it doesn’t have to be your story forever. You can rise from it. You can nature bathe, work through therapy, and become something that you have always envisioned you could be. The stories of empowerment that are told throughout your film are as hard of a subject as this is.
You’ve achieved something that shows not only the light at the end of the tunnel but the power of perseverance and the power of these young women. I want to thank you for that because it’s not by any means an easy task. You told me it took you five years. I would imagine it would’ve taken you much longer than that because you’ve done it so beautifully. Thank you.
You are every bit deserving behind that Emmy. I hope to see more accolades on your heels. I want to ask you one final question. Let’s say I wanted to have this screen at my local high school. Where would I start? Perhaps you know that because you’ve been screened around there. If somebody reading here is like, “I want to do that,” how do I go about that? Do I reach out to the high school and tell them about the film? Is that it?
Our website has everything you need to get started. You can go to the school and give the school information about human trafficking. You could print out some of our resources, stats, and statistics because sometimes even the principal might not know about human trafficking. Educate them on the process and say, “This is happening.” Try to do it maybe on an awareness month like Human Trafficking Awareness Month. That’s in January. Say, “It’s Human Trafficking Awareness Month. Did you know that this percentage of kids are being trafficked in our community or city?” Bring up the statistics.Sometimes, even the principal of a school might not know about human trafficking. It is the young people’s duty to educate them. Click To Tweet
We think it’s important to educate students and teachers about this issue so we can help kids. It’s 100% the school’s going to say yes. We have different ways for people to do a screening. They could screen the full film, that’s 90 minutes, and have kids come to either a theater room or a gym. We make it easy for people to split the film over three days and have a whole action week where on day one, you bring in a local nonprofit to come speak or a police department. You screen the film over 3 days for 30 minutes.
We have a guidebook that goes with the film with different trauma-informed activities teachers could do or questions to discuss. Also, safety handouts and all the resources. On the last day, you can have the kids do an action item where they create signs with stats on human trafficking and numbers to call. Hang it around the school. Reaching out to your school saying that you’re interested, and following up with them every week will get it to happen because sometimes that’s a way you can do it. If you need help, feel free to email us, and we can help give more guidance to that.
Being that I’m in California, I feel like the story would be one that would be important to them. I’ve got the Santa Cruz County School District, and there’s a number of high schools attached to that. It feels like if I went to one, it would end up in the county, and potentially you go to Santa Cruz High, Harbor High, and then Scotts Valley High, which is right by me. It shows an impact in our local area.
In the end, we’re empowering these teens to have knowledge, identify when something’s going wrong, and speak up when it’s time. All of those things can lead us to have a healthier society overall and one in which we can thrive. At the end of the day, that’s what we need to be doing. Thank you so much for that guidance. The primary website I have for this is MCMFilmmaker.com for you. Did you want also to send them somewhere else?
That’s my personal website. I would say CaliforniasForgottenChildren.com is the film’s website that has all the resources they need.
Thank you so much for joining me, Melody, and for this important work. You’ve touched me. It brought me back to a few moments in my life and made me feel like I need to give back more in this particular way. I’m going to put this out there to the readers. If someone in your life has experienced sex trafficking in any way and happens to be in my local area or has an interest in telling their story through the show or wants a mentor like me, I am opening myself up to that.
You can send me an email directly through the website or send me a note via social channels. I review everything I receive. I would like to be a resource for anyone wanting to get their voice out there too. I have two shows, and I’m putting it out there as an open call. I’m happy to help someone get started. I hope that your film can touch so many more thousands of people and millions even. I look forward to seeing which next endeavor you undertake. Is there something we should be aware of on the horizon?
I’m working on a new documentary about motherhood after breast cancer. I’m following an amazing, resilient super mom that has survived breast cancer and her journey through pregnancy to postpartum. She’s also a fighter. She’s in jujitsu, a bodybuilder, and also a Navy veteran. She is an amazing woman. I’m excited about this next project.
This probably won’t surprise you, but I was able to pump an additional 1,000 fluid ounces of breast milk in my first pregnancy. I donated my breast milk to a woman’s child. She died when her child was only two months old, so they got my breast milk. Also, another woman had survived breast cancer and had a pregnancy, but she no longer was able to produce milk.
She used mine and some other women from the community to be able to have that same tactile feel of breastfeeding her child but with not their milk. It was someone else’s milk, including mine. There are all sorts of resources out there, even through volunteer moms who want to help out and who can produce a surplus like I did because I was a pumping machine given my business travel, and I would build up a store in my freezer. I’ll look forward to seeing that too. When it’s ready, I’d like you to come on and talk about it.
It sounds good. It will be in 2025.
Thank you so much for joining me.
Thank you for having me.
To learn more about Melody Miller and her film, California’s Forgotten Children, visit CaliforniasForgottenChildren.com. You can also visit her personal site, MCMFilmmaker.com. I also have another episode I want to direct people to. Perhaps you have experienced sexual violence in some way in the past. I interviewed an incredible individual, Tim Mousseau, on this topic. He has been out there as a survivor and advocate working to build a safer society for all people. You’ll find that episode particularly encouraging, and provide additional assets and tools for you as well.
If you love this episode or perhaps hated to love it, please subscribe and leave us a review. This simple act will help us to reach more people so more people discover this show. Thank you, readers, now and always, for being a part of this show and this community because together, we can do so much more. We can even end child sex trafficking and create a safer society for all people. Thank you.
- California’s Forgotten Children
- A Safer Society: Ending Sexual Violence Through Survivors’ Stories With Tim Mousseau – Past Episode
Human Trafficking Hotline:
By phone: 1-888-373-7888
By email: Help@HumanTraffickingHotline.org
By text: text HELP to 233733 (BEFREE)
Online chat: www.HumanTraffickingHotline.org
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
National Runaway Safeline: 800-RUN-AWAY