VIRGINIA BEACH -- The detectives found a 14-year-old identified as Diane hiding under a bedspread in the corner of her friend's bedroom, the window cracked a few inches in an aborted escape attempt.

With bleached blond hair and freckles, she resembled many other teen-agers who wished they were older. But her youthful appearance had taken on a hard edge. Trying to escape what she described as an unbearable home life, she had run away once again.

Virginia Beach, the largest and one of the fastest growing cities in the state, has the greatest number of teen-age runaways of any Virginia locality.

In 1986, police recorded 1,652 cases of local teen-age runaways, up from 1,151 in 1984, police said. So far this year, statistics indicate a similar increase.

In Fairfax County, which has almost twice the population of Virginia Beach, 1,544 runaway cases were reported in 1986. Statewide, 10,686 cases were reported. Officials said the statistics reflect cases of repeated runaway attempts by the same children.

In addition to being the source of many runaways, Virginia Beach is, like other coastal resort towns, a popular destination for young runaways from elsewhere. The influx is especially great during the summer, when runaways blend in with the large number of tourists and when police report a 30 percent increase in the number of youths who arrive here. About 60 to 80 teens from across the country, including some from Northern Virginia and the Washington area, are found here each month during the peak season, between April and October.

Juvenile justice system and local social service officials say they are frustrated in their attempts to control the influx. Reluctant to return teens to troubled homes, they encourage family counseling and often try to find alternative housing for the youths, but the number of available facilities is limited.

Temporary shelters, group homes and foster care are all options, but because state law does not permit juveniles to be detained unless they are charged with a criminal offense, they are free to leave.

Part of the attraction of Virginia Beach is that the teens are easily camouflaged by tourists and are welcomed by a close-knit network of street people. Teens interviewed for this story were identified by authorities or social workers. Their last names are not used because they are juveniles.

"It's the beachcomber syndrome," said Mark Hirschfeld, executive director of the Alternative House, a shelter for runaways in Vienna. "You'll always find someone to hide you. Then you can spend the summer rent-free, food-free and it makes life real easy."

The network, which now meets on the boardwalk at 17th Street, is made up of young adults who live on the streets and teen-agers who describe themselves as "throwaways" because, they say, they are unwanted by their parents. Youths nicknamed "Scum," "Roach," "Bucky" and "Grits" teach newcomers where to find free food, a hassle-free spot to sleep, clothes or a shower.

They also teach new arrivals streetwise tricks for getting money, explained Nancy, 17, who said she ran away from her New Hampshire home two years ago. One is how to "roll" the tourists and sailors by offering them drugs, taking their money and then fleeing, she said.

Teen-age girls say it's not always easy finding a place to sleep. Teens and police tell stories of how girls have exchanged sex for a temporary roof over their heads and been molested -- by men and women -- while they slept on the sand.

"I slept on the beach for three nights," said Kendall, 14, who said she left her middle-class Virginia Beach home and is now staying at Seton House, the only privately run shelter here. "I was molested by a girl."

Nancy said she often would stay up all night and sleep on the beach with the tourists during the day. She said she has slept on the roof of the outdoor public restrooms, in the crawl spaces of vacant apartments known to police as runaway hideouts, in cars and on the roof of a church.

While she praised the community of gracious people who she said shared food and cigarettes and looked out for one another, Nancy also admitted to having some rough times.

"One of the hardest things to figure out is who you can trust and who you can show that you trust," she said during a 1 a.m. interview on the boardwalk. "You learn from what other people do for your friends, from what you hear and what you see."

Detectives Tom Lewis and Donald Rimer, the city's two full-time officers on the runaway beat, are well known and respected among the "throwaways" and street people. The detectives said most of the kids they find on the streets are not just rebellious adolescents -- they "It's the beachcomber syndrome. You can spend the summer rent-free, food-free and it makes life real easy."

-- Mark Hirschfield

come from deeply troubled homes where violence and sexual abuse is commonplace.

The six girls, age 12 to 16, who stayed last week at the Seton House are a portrait in family sadness.

Like schoolgirls sharing hints on fashion and boyfriends, they exchange tips on how they escaped their homes, the ways their parents beat them and what they wanted to do with their futures.

"I have places to stay in Norfolk, Portsmouth. I have rides," said Tina, 13.

"I'll go home and stay until one of my parents hits me again," said Angel, 13, her soft features transformed into a tight figure of determination. "I'll probably go out of state. In Mexico, there's no drinking age; they consider you an adult."

Twelve-year-old Dytania, the youngest in the shelter, lives in a Virginia Beach neighborhood that detectives Lewis and Rimer described as the city's hub of drug abuse, prostitution and violent crime. She said that she had been beaten by her mother and that she had run away from home more than 10 times.

"My mother, she don't claim me; I don't claim her," Dytania said.

She said she has been collecting "evidence" -- pictures, pills, letters -- that she said she may some day use against her mother to protect herself.

"When I cry," she added, "I don't cry out; I cry inside of me."