How do we help youth who run away from foster care?

Bryan Samuels, executive director of Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, and his team of researchers recently released their initial findings from the groundbreaking Voices of Youth Count study.1 This is a national initiative integrating findings from multiple research activities with the goal of linking evidence and action to end youth homelessness. In his opening remarks at the November 15, 2017, press conference, Bryan reflected on his time as the director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Bryan noted that his highest priority upon taking leadership was to address the number of children in care who had run away from their foster homes. During his tenure, Bryan was able to significantly reduce the number of youth “on run” and the number of days they were “on run.” He spoke passionately about the need to intervene and build stability during adolescence and young adulthood for those at highest risk. There is no doubt that youth who decide to run from their foster homes are at the greatest risk of being homeless and harmed. Each day that they are missing counts. Child welfare leaders have a unique opportunity to communicate to our agency staff and to our judicial and legislative partners that this group of children in care deserve our steadfast attention.

– David Sanders, PH.D., EVP of Systems Improvement, Casey Family Programs

Approximately one in eight youth run away from home, and a large majority of those are youth in foster care.1 In their 2015 article, Running away from foster care: What do we know and what do we do, researchers Kimberly Crosland and Glen Dunlap share the risk factors, motivations, and ramifications of running away from foster care:2

Risk factors: The many reasons why a youth may be placed in out-of-home care (e.g., abuse, neglect, family conflict) are the same risk factors that make it more likely that a youth will run away. Age and gender are also risk factors: youth between the ages of 15 and 17 are more vulnerable to running away, as are females. Substance abuse, mental health diagnoses, and instability of placements are also risk factors.

Motivation: Motivation for running away typically falls into two categories: running “to” something (friends, family, activities) or running “away” from something (untenable living circumstances). Often both of these reasons may be motivation for a youth to run. For example, youth may run away from a placement they find difficult in order to meet up with siblings or relatives they haven’t seen in some time. In addition, research shows the relationship of the youth with their primary caregiver to be an important factor in whether a youth decides to run.

Ramifications: The ramifications for youth who run away are immediate and potentially long-lasting. There are higher risks for delinquency and victimization. Running away can be the gateway to human trafficking and criminal behavior. Both education and employment opportunities are reduced, as youth who run are more likely to drop out of high school, leading to poor employment prospects.

Guidance and strategies

Crosland and Dunlap also note that few studies have reported interventions specific to decreasing runaway behavior of youth in foster care, but that social capital has been identified as one potential preventative factor. Stabilizing placements, allowing for more access to “normalized” and age-appropriate activities, and ensuring that there is at least one caregiver or other adult to whom the youth feels connected in a positive way are offered as possible strategies for reducing the likelihood that a youth will run. The authors also suggest using person-centered approaches that allow youth to voice their goals and hopes as well as identifying functional and environmental reasons a youth might have for running away, as new ways of addressing the issue.

Other suggestions for how to address youth who run away from care include:3

  1. Provide a counseling session after a youth runs to find out more about why, and where they went.
  2. Examine the placement to ensure that it is the most appropriate placement for the youth.
  3. Decrease boredom. Identify interests and activities that the youth enjoys and develop a care plan that incorporates those activities.
  4. Increase the youth’s connection to agency staff and peers, and ensure that bullying and abuse are not occurring.
  5. Ensure that the youth has regular visits with family members and friends when feasible.
  6. Provide youth with education regarding the risks and alternatives to running away.

In 2010, the National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connections hosted a webinar session addressing youth who run away from residential care, which highlighted a range of approaches and related tools:

Finally, the resources below provide summaries of other approaches for addressing youth who run away from foster care.

Overview and summaries

Capacity Building Center for States, At Risk for Sex Trafficking: Youth Who Run Away From Foster Care (2015)
This product is provided to prompt conversations about youth who run away from state custody, how data can be used to learn more about this high-risk population, and how this knowledge can inform interventions.

Children’s Services Practice Notes, Preventing and Responding to Runaways from Foster Care (2012)
This newsletter directed to North Carolina Children’s Services staff provides strategies and tips to help prevent and address youth running away from foster care.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ACF, Information Memorandum: Serving Youth Who Run Away from Foster Care (2014)
The purpose of this memorandum is to provide guidance on serving youth 18 and under who run away from foster care., Child Welfare (n.d.)
This overview highlights the statistics of youth who are homeless and who run away, with some resources identified.

Jurisdictional examples

The resources below provide information as to how various jurisdictions have examined and addressed this issue:

Overview and summaries

Los Angeles DCFS, Running Away from Foster Care: Youths’ Knowledge and Access of Services (2010)
This report constitutes the third part of a study on runaway youth and their knowledge and access of services. This report is based on interviews with a sample of youth who ran away from foster care placements in Chicago and Los Angeles.

Minnesota Department of Human Services, Responding to Youth Who Run Away from Foster Care (2016)
This guide from Minnesota DHS is designed to inform stakeholders of the policies and procedures required when youth, for whom the agency is legally responsible, are reported or believed to have run away.

Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, Responsibilities Regarding Runaways, Absconders and Escapees (2017)
This policy encourages preventative case management practices for child(ren)/youth who may be at risk of running away, and provides procedures for when a child/youth does leave care and when a child/youth returns from a runaway episode.

Vermont Department for Children and Families, Family Services Policy Manual, Runaway, Abducted, and Missing Children & Youth (2017)
This policy outlines the steps taken when a child or youth involved with the Family Services Division runs away, is abducted, or otherwise goes missing.


1 Voices of Youth Count, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago [Website]. (n.d.). Retrieved from
2 Crosland, K., & Dunlap, G. (2015). Running away from foster care: What do we know and what do we do? Journal of Child and Family Studies, 24(6), 1697–1706.
3 California Evidence-Based Clearinghouse for Child Welfare. (n.d.). Running away and absent without leave (AWOL) in the child welfare system. Retrieved from

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