Trouble on the line

California Youth Crisis Line is facing troubles of its own

Nicki Mehta, coordinator for the California Youth Crisis Line, has to get creative to keep the phones covered and the help coming for troubled teens.

Nicki Mehta, coordinator for the California Youth Crisis Line, has to get creative to keep the phones covered and the help coming for troubled teens.

Photo By jerome love

Contributing writer Raheem F. Hosseini was a volunteer counselor with the California Youth Crisis Line from May 2009 to October 2010. For more information about the organization, visit or call the toll-free number (800) 843-5200.

The 15-year-old caller was sitting in the middle of her home, alone, feeling like “life is passing her by.” Various family members were moving out or moving on; her best friend was attempting to escape her father’s home for foster care. Her 17-year-old boyfriend, who just had a baby with his ex, was becoming increasingly violent toward her. It started with an argument, graduated to chokes and punches, and had reached the point where she was being repeatedly raped.

To the girl on the phone, there were only two options: live with it or die because of it. She popped eight NyQuil tablets, scribbled out a suicide note and went to bed, only to wake up the next day to discover no one had noticed.

“I was hoping to fall asleep and never wake up, but then I wake up and there’s this letter,” she said. “‘Oh no, my problems are still here.’”

We talked for a long time. It was at the tail end of August 2009. From her home, she could see the smoke from the Station fire that decimated swaths of the Angeles National Forest and San Gabriel Mountains.

I told her there are battered women’s shelters and advocacy organizations, places that can help figure out her options. I told her it’s not hopeless, that there’s an alternative to staying in a horrible relationship or ending it all.

I provided some local referrals. She promised to call back before making another attempt on her life. Before hanging up, she said I sound like someone she’s seen on YouTube.

I often wonder what happened to the caller, whether she got the help she so desperately needed or became just another of California’s young people to fall through the cracks. That’s one of the maddening things about being a volunteer counselor with the California Youth Crisis Line, the state’s chronically underfunded hot line for troubled youth: One rarely, if ever, learns the end of the story.

The psych majors and other volunteers who staff the 26-year-old hot line 24 hours a day almost always enter the scene in medias res. We listen, empathize, pass on suitable referrals from a dwindling list of statewide resources and hang up, often in a matter of minutes. For the youths that call us, we’re little more than a weigh station along a long, rocky road.

Karly Ables, on the line.

Photo By jerome love

The 16-year-old kid had phoned all the way from Florence, Ala., which is not altogether unusual. For a phone line that tallies roughly 12,000 calls a year—a somewhat conservative figure, since there are typically only one or two counselors per shift and all unanswered calls roll over to a national runaway hot line—out-of-state calls aren’t quite as common as prank calls, but they do happen.

The young man’s voice dripped with a lilting twang. He was still mourning the death of his grandfather to asbestos-related pneumonia a year before, a man who subbed in for his absent dad and taught him how to fish and fix things. The caller couldn’t talk to his mother, and a psychiatrist only listened long enough to prescribe bipolar meds. I didn’t do much; I just listened to him talk about his beloved grandpa and reconnect to emotions he thought had abandoned him. He said it helped more than the shrink.

“You know what would be great?” he asked before saying goodbye. “If y’all could help me with my math homework, too.”

We sat in a small, windowless office, most of its space eaten up by an oversized, lacquered conference table donated last year by Enterprise Rent-A-Car. A quick poll around the room revealed that none of us had ever heard of the California Coalition for Youth or its hot line before happening upon separate ads for volunteer crisis counselors. Granted, the coalition is pretty secretive about its base of operations (for security purposes, only certain members can divulge where it is), but it doesn’t want to be hush-hush about its existence.

“There are a lot of providers that don’t even know that much about us,” program coordinator Nicki Mehta acknowledged.

The coalition has a sparse Facebook profile. Most of its community outreach occurs within a circular network of organizations, and that means missing some folks who aren’t already dialed in to the resources available.

“We find out a lot that people don’t know there are services out there for them,” acknowledged Maureen McCaustland, a mental-health program coordinator for Sacramento County’s Alcohol and Drug Services Division.

Dramatic evidence of this came from Joyce Bilyeu, the training project manager for the Child Abuse Prevention Council of Sacramento, who said rates of “shaken baby syndrome” in Sacramento plummeted the year after the organization spent $50,000 on outreach. Cases of abuse spiked again when the grant money was gone and the campaign was over.

The father was calling on behalf of his 11-year-old daughter, who was experimenting with cutting and talking about suicide. She had trouble fitting in at school, had issues with bullying and anger management, and was stressing over the fact that she might be gay. The father was trying to be supportive, taking his daughter to group and individual therapy. He called to locate additional resources and figure out how seriously he should take his daughter’s threats. His daughter was the one who gave him our number.

At a staff meeting last summer, CCY executive director Heather Dearing warned the handful of paid staff members that looming budget cuts and state IOUs could mean trouble down the road. In January of this year, the two remaining graveyard counselors were eliminated. One has since been brought back in a limited capacity.

The California Coalition for Youth has had its budget chipped away by lawmakers since 2001. So the program has watched its state allotment shrivel from roughly $327,000 annually to around $114,000. Call it slow death by a thousand legislative cuts.

“We’re always on the chopping block, just because it’s under the general fund,” said Mehta.

The result is four-hour blocks during which calls are automatically rolled over to a national runaway hot line, because there’s no one to staff the crisis line. But Mehta and others have gotten creative with their resources, offering modest stipends to volunteers who can man the graveyard shifts at home, using a router that sends calls to their cell phones. They’re also not above a little bribery, offering gift cards and the like to those who fill in for a certain number of empty slots. But the list of free and low-cost resources around the state is only going to grow shorter.

The female caller, 14, was seeking the number for a shelter because she didn’t feel safe at home with her stepfather. She wouldn’t divulge any more details, but sounded haunted and traumatized. I found the number to Larkin Hall, the one San Francisco shelter that accepts kids as young as her. On her request, I called Larkin and patched her in. But when the intake receptionist insisted on hearing the girl’s story to decide whether she could be accepted at Larkin or would need to go to a “family reunification facility,” the girl said in a shaken voice that she would have to think about it and abruptly hung up.