The parents Heather MacAulay sees sometimes wait hours -- or even days -- to contact police about their runaway teens, fearing they won't be taken seriously if they call any earlier. That's a common myth, says MacAulay, program manager of Operation Runaway, a Rockville-based support group. Call as soon as there's "reasonable doubt," she advises. And it's never too soon to contact her group either, she says.

Operation Runaway, co-sponsored by the nonprofit Potomac Ridge Behavioral Health Center and the Montgomery County Police Department, works to ease tensions between runaways -- or kids threatening to join their ranks -- and their parents or caregivers. Parents whose children have not yet returned home are also encouraged to join.

Eve Drake of Silver Spring, three of whose children were once runaways, says joining the group helped her family greatly. "You're sort of embarrassed and devastated," she said, "but that was the best thing we ever did -- going out [to Operation Runaway] and talking about it."

Operation Runaway advises families to follow two key guidelines: Parents should set clear rules, and kids should disclose their whereabouts regularly. The group, said MacAulay, also counsels families on matters such as drug abuse. One of three group supervisors is a chemical dependency counselor.

The program, which meets Wednesdays from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. in Rockville, is free and open to parents and children of middle school through high school age. Some sessions are joint parent-child meetings; in others, parents and kids talk in separate rooms. Families new to the program are asked to commit to at least six meetings, says MacAulay.

Is it hard to get kids there in the first place?

"Yes," said MacAulay. "We always praise the kids who do come because it's a big step -- to admit that they probably need a little bit of help."

The group, established in 1991, also maintains a 24-hour crisis hot line and offers individual counseling sessions.

To register or learn more, call 800-204-8600 (hot line) or 301-251-4545.

-- Samantha Ganey