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May 2005Vol. 6, No. 4Understanding and Preventing Foster Care Runaways

Running away from out-of-home care exposes youth to grave risks and prevents them from receiving needed educational and treatment services. Chapin Hall has recently conducted the largest study to date of youth who run away from out-of-home care, in an effort to understand the trends, demographics, and reasons behind this phenomenon. This information, presented in an issue brief titled "Youth Who Run Away From Out-of-Home Care," may help child welfare agencies prevent children from running away and better protect youth.

The research included analysis of government data on more than 14,000 youths who ran away from out-of-home care in Illinois between 1993 and 2003, as well as individual interviews with 42 youth who had recently run away and then returned to care. Foster parents and child welfare professionals were also interviewed.

Key findings about the youth who ran away include:

  • 90 percent of those who ran away from care were between the ages of 12 and 18.
  • Girls were more likely to run than boys.
  • Youth who experienced placement instability were more likely to run than those with stable placement histories.
  • Youth placed in foster home care were less likely to run than those in residential care. Those in kinship care were less likely to run than both groups.
  • Youth placed with siblings were less likely to run than those placed on their own.
  • While the likelihood of a first run was low and difficult to predict, youth who had run away once before were found to be very likely to do so again.

Researchers also collected data on trends in running away over time, what happened to youth when they ran away, and reasons why youth ran away. These analyses lead to a number of implications for child welfare practice. In general, the authors suggest that viewing running away as a coping behavior may help agencies begin to devise prevention strategies. Some of their specific suggestions for how child welfare agencies can address runaways include:

  • Facilitating relationships between foster youth and schools, foster families, and biological family members to provide youth with a critical sense of consistency and stability
  • Involving youth in developmentally appropriate activities, to foster a sense of normalcy
  • Increasing attention to assessment and treatment of substance abuse and mental health issues
  • Focusing prevention efforts on engaging youth who run and return, to decrease the occurrence of subsequent runs

The abstract of the issue brief, "Youth Who Run Away From Out-of-Home Care," is available on the Chapin Hall website at Users may access the full-text article through a free registration process.