Youth Who Run Away from Out-of-Home Care

Given child protective services’ responsibility to provide stability for children in their care, running away from out-of-home care is an event of great concern. The overwhelming majority of missing children are adolescents who have run away from care. This research found that youth have many reasons for running away. Also, while a relatively small percentage of youth run away from foster care, the ones who do may do so multiple times.

What We Did

We analyzed administrative data on more than 14,000 youths who ran away from out-of-home care between 1993 and 2003. We also interviewed foster parents, child welfare professionals, and 42 youth who had recently run away and returned to care. The interviews captured the voices of youth who ran away as well as the perspectives of those with whom they had the most contact. Their stories provided a richer understanding of what youth are seeking when they run from out-of-home care, what they were hoping to escape, and what brought them back into care.

What We Found

The vast majority (90%) of youth who run away were between ages 12 and 18. Within that age group, youth older than 13 were significantly more likely than 12 and 13 year-olds to run away. Certain groups of youth were more likely to run away from outof-home care than others:

  • Girls were more likely to run than boys.
  • Black and Hispanic youth were more likely to experience a first run than whites, though race/ethnicity was unrelated to later runs.
  • Youth with substance abuse problems were at heightened risk of runaway, as were youth with some kinds of mental health diagnoses.
  • Youth who experience placement instability were much more likely than those with stable placement histories to run.
  • Youth in foster home care were less likely to run from care than those in residential care, and those living in the home of a relative were even less likely to run.
  • Youth placed with a sibling were generally less likely to run than those not placed with a sibling.

Youth provided a few different reasons for running away:

  • Youth were generally running to something than away from something.
  • Some youth were seeking independence and asserting adulthood.
  • Youth may be reaching out to family or friends to “touch base,” or running to their family of origin.

What it Means

Our findings suggest some strategies that could prevent or reduce running away. Agencies should understand the importance of caseworkers as stable influences in children’s lives, even during periods of placement instability. The first run should trigger evaluation by caregivers and caseworkers, to determine and address the reasons a youth ran away. Many of the youth we interviewed wanted to connect with someone who cared for them and understood them. Sometimes this means family or friends who they do not see very often. Addressing that need for connection may be one way to reduce the chance of youth running away from care.

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