Main Page
This Issue
Next Article

Family and Children's
Resource Program

Vol. 17, No. 3
June 2012

Preventing and Responding to Runaways from Foster Care

Anyone who has ever searched for a young person who has run away from foster care knows the anxiety, the countless phone calls, the driving from place to place. It’s harrowing. When the youth is safely back in care, we fervently hope we’ll never have to face this situation again. Chances are, though, we will.

Not Uncommon
Runaways from foster 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 runaway episodes are short—one study found nearly half lasted less than one week and two-thirds lasted two weeks or less. The same study found that the older the runaway, 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 can never know for sure which youth 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 Erst (2011):

  • Females are more likely to run away than are males.
  • 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.
  • Foster youth are more likely to run away the first time if they entered care due to lack of supervision and less likely 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 more likely to run away than youth in foster homes; youth placed with relatives are least likely to run away.
  • Length of time in care does not necessarily predict runaway; in fact, 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 between 14 and 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.

Youth participating in the study suggested a number of 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 faring in their placements. Many of those who were unhappy with their placements felt a placement move would have kept them from running (Pergamit & Ernst, 2011).

After a Run
What can social workers do to support runaway youth after they’re back in foster care? Recognize that youth who have run away experience a disruption in services (medical, counseling, etc.) and may have unmet needs. Youth may not have sought out services while they were on the run, fearing that they would be turned in by service providers, or may have thought they needed an adult with them in order to get services (Pergamit & Ernst, 2011). After a runaway episode, work with foster parents and youth to reconnect youth to services to meet their needs. As the box below demonstrates, connecting youth with school is also key.

School Matters

One of the reasons runaway youth return to care is so they can attend school. In one study (Skyles, Smithgall, & Howard, 2007), runaway youth described being torn between wanting to be in school and not wanting to get caught and returned to their foster care placement. Some were drawn to school because they understood the value of an education for their future; others wanted to spend time with school friends. The experience of running away showed others they needed an education to support themselves in life.

Getting youth enrolled and engaged in school following a runaway episode is essential, as is having child welfare and school staff work collaboratively to foster educational continuity, stability, and success for foster youth. Skyles and colleagues suggest various to help youth stay connected with school, including 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 foster positive peer relationships and motivate them to be engaged in school and in their academic success.
  • Train foster parents about the importance of attending school activities of the children in their care; establish clear expectations for their participation 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.

Runaway prevention suggestions from the NC Division of Social Services child welfare policy manual (2012) include:

  • Design the work schedules of staff to be flexible enough to meet the child’s needs.
  • Strictly enforce requirements regarding the frequency of direct contact with children in foster care.
  • Recruit and support foster homes in communities from which foster children come into care.

These suggestions mirror much of what youth who have run say they want. Youth also desire more contact with their families. Strengthening visitation can be an effective way to help prevent runaways from foster care.
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.

The National Runaway Switchboard is a communication system for runaway and homeless youth. Its mission is to help keep America’s runaway, homeless, and at-risk youth safe and off the streets. Online:

References for this and other articles in this issue

Training Resource: Runaway Prevention Curriculum

The National Runaway Switchboard offers the Let’s Talk: Runaway Prevention Curriculum, a free online curriculum that builds life skills, increases knowledge about runaway resources and prevention, educates youth about alternatives to running away, and encourages youth to access and seek help from trusted community members. The program can be delivered by a range of youth-serving professionals; each module can be completed in 45-60 minutes. Modules cover such topics as communication and listening, adolescent development, and Internet safety.

Evaluation data suggest Let’s Talk improves knowledge and life skills of youth who participate in the program. Online: