Vol. 18, No. 2 • May 2014

Preventing and Responding to Runaways from Foster Care

Runaways from foster care are not rare. Preliminary estimates are that of the 423,773 U.S. children in foster care on September 30, 2009, 8,047 (2%) had a "runaway" status (CWIG, 2011).

Most children who run away from foster care return or are found. Typical episodes are short--one study found nearly half lasted less than a week and two-thirds lasted two weeks or less. The same study found that the older the young person is, the longer the runaway episode tends to last (Courtney, et al. 2005).

Youth rarely leave the foster care system permanently by running away. For example, of the 4,707 NC children who entered care in 2008-09, just 13 (or about a quarter of 1%) left the system by running away (Duncan, et al., 2012). Those who do exit care this way are likely to have spent a long time in care (Courtney & Barth, 1996).

What We Know
We never know for sure who will attempt to run from foster care, but we know something about the traits of those who run. The following findings from the research literature are described by Pergamit and Ernst (2011):

  • Girls are more likely to run than boys.
  • Runaway behavior is not linked to a particular race/ethnicity.
  • Runaways tend to have more school problems, higher rates of suicidal ideation, more reported behavioral problems, and more alcohol, substance abuse, and mental health disorders.
  • Youth in foster care are more likely to run away the first time if they entered care due to lack of supervision and less likely to run if they entered due to sexual abuse or physical abuse.
  • The more placements they have, the more likely youth are to run.
  • Youth in group homes or residential facilities are more likely to run away than youth in foster homes; youth placed with relatives are least likely to run away.
  • The older the youth is when entering care, the more likely they are to run away.

A Recent Study
Recently researchers from the National Runaway Switchboard (Pergamit & Ernst, 2011) interviewed 50 foster youth aged 14 to 17 years old. All had run away at least once in the past year. As the box below illustrates, these interviews tell us much about why youth run, how often they run, and where they stay when they're on the run.

Findings from Interviews with 50 Runaways
from Foster Care

How often did they run?
One in four ran multiple times.

Placement type
Most ran from a group home; few ran from foster homes; those in kinship placements were least likely to run.

When did they run?
When placements were new. 33% ran within the first 3 months; more than half ran within the first 6 months.

Did they plan?
Not usually. Only a third planned; 66% left on the spur of the moment.

Why they ran
Most common: (1) to be with family and friends and (2) because they disliked their placement.

Conflict and safety
Conflict with caregivers was reported by nearly 25%, and was more likely among youth in foster homes than in group homes.

1 in 6 reported feeling unsafe in their placement; those in group homes were twice as likely to feel unsafe.

Where did they go?
Most (56%) went to their old neighborhood. Very few ran to live on the streets, staying outside (e.g., in a park, an abandoned building, etc.).

Whom did they contact while on the run?
Friends. Many wanted to see family, but sought out friends because they did not want to get parents in trouble or jeopardize reunification. Fewer than 25% called their caseworker; most who did make contact with the caseworker did so when they were ready to return to care.

Why did they return?
Most returned voluntarily because they wanted to be back at their home, go to school, or avoid getting themselves or others in trouble.

Source: Adapted from Pergamit & Ernst, 2011

Youth in the study suggested ways to improve their experiences in care. In general, they want more opportunities to see their families and stay connected to their neighborhoods and friends. They want to talk to someone who will listen to them, get to know them, and help them work through difficulties. Although this need could be met by a foster parent, many of these teens felt they couldn't talk to their foster parents.

Teens who ran also wanted more support from caseworkers, including more frequent visits where caseworkers spend time listening to youth to hear how they are really doing. Those who were unhappy with their placements felt a move would have helped.

After a Run
What can we do to support runaways after they're back in foster care? Recognize that these youth experienced a disruption in services (medical, counseling, etc.) and may have unmet needs. After a run, social workers should work with foster parents and youth to reconnect youth to services. Connecting youth with school is key.

Agencies can help prevent runaways from foster care by:

  • Using flexible staffing schedules so workers can meet the child's needs.
  • Having frequent, direct contact with children in foster care.
  • Recruiting and supporting foster homes in communities from which foster children come into care.
  • Strengthening visitation so youth have more contact with their families.

Working with foster parents and youth on conflict management and communication is another key prevention strategy. By teaching skills and being available to families to help them work through difficulties, child welfare professionals make an important investment in strengthening relationships that may make the difference in a youth's decision to run or stay when times are tough.


School Matters

Getting youth enrolled and engaged in school following a runaway episode is essential, as is having foster parents and child welfare and school staff work together to provide educational continuity, stability, and success for foster youth. Ways to help youth stay connected with school include the following:

  • Place information about positive academic achievements in youths' case files; they need to experience educational success and be acknowledged for it.
  • Provide intensive individual, home-based tutoring to help youth eliminate subject-matter and skill deficiencies and attain grade-level abilities.
  • Provide resources to allow youth to participate in after-school activities (e.g., museums, lessons, classes, cultural events) that can promote positive peer relationships and motivate them to be engaged in school and in their academic success.
  • Make sure foster parents know the importance of attending school activities of the children in their care; they should participate at school events.
  • Allow youth to be active participants in reviewing their educational options and making decisions about their future; this will engender commitment and responsibility for their actions.
  • Recruit mentors for youth, including family members, who will encourage and help them define and reach their educational goals.
Adapted from Skyles, Smithgall, & Howard, 2007

To view references cited in this and other articles in this issue, click here.

~ Family and Children's Resource Program, UNC-CH School of Social Work ~