Why do Kids Run Away from Foster Care?

written by naehblog
September 25, 2013

Today's blog post was contributed by Richard A. Hooks Wayman, executive director of Hearth Connection in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Do you know what the number of youth who ran away from foster care was in 2013? It was 6,189. To put that in perspective: That’s enough kids to fill more than 14 average sized elementary schools, or more than 110 school buses.

This is a topic that is close to my heart. I am the director of a nonprofit organization offerings supportive housing to more than 45 youth annually in Minnesota. I am also a foster/adoptive parent who has helped to care for over eight children in the past decade. One of my foster daughters ran away from home.

She was 16 years olf when she ran back to her mother’s home to protect her chemically addicted mother from an abusive boyfriend. (During one instance of abuse the boyfriend had threated the mother and my foster daughter with a knife.) Despite our efforts in reaching out to our foster daughter (going to the mother’s house, communicating with counselors and teachers at her school) she remained away for more than two months.

By the time she finally returned, the county child welfare system had already closed her file and placed another foster teenage girl in our home. So I was unable to take her in and could only offer to take her to the local child welfare shelter. It was one of the most terrible and heart-wrenching moments of my life.

Often, the crisis of youth homelessness is pitched as the result of foster youth who ‘age out’ of foster care and then become homeless in their young adult years. Less attention is paid to the missing runaway foster care youth, or to the youth who exit juvenile justice placements and have no safe home to which they can return.

So why do some youth run away from foster care? Some, like my foster daughter run back to their parents in order to protect them. Some youth run away because their foster or group home setting is abusive. Some kids run because they are bullied or assaulted by other children or by the guardians themselves.

Other youth run because they believe their chances for a life of self-determination are better on the streets, and others are lured away by adults who sexually exploit them.

While the scenarios and factors are complex, if you asked me what we could do locally or nationally to end youth homelessness for youth who run away from foster care placements, these would be my recommendations:

  • Rely less on foster care homes. Expand the use of independent supportive housing programs so that older adolescents in foster care can ‘practice housing’ in an apartment with supportive services;
  • Ensure that local child welfare policies and practices empower youth to give feedback on their current foster care homes or group home facilities;
  • Offer youth access to therapy and supportive services when assessments show that a ‘regular’ foster home may not offer adequate support; and
  • Consider offering birth parents, even when they have a history of abuse or neglect, with evidence-based, family focused therapy to prevent out-of-home placements. Sometimes addressing mental health disabilities or addictions from a strength-based and holistic family approach can keep a youth in their home or accomplish reunification.

Our focus should not just be on those youth who ‘age out’ of foster care – but the youth who are at-risk of running from a placement. Local counties or state child welfare systems should be held accountable to incrementally decrease the number of missing, runaway youth. Let’s count these youth and then find solutions to ending this crisis.

Photo by _reticence.