What Makes Youth in Foster Care More Likely to Run Away?

A young man leaving home.

Running Away from Out-of-Home Care: A Multilevel Analysis” (abstract). Hansung Kim, David Chenot, and Sokho Lee. Children and Society, Vol. 29, No. 2 (2015).

What it’s about: Authors Kim, Chenot, and Lee wished to identify factors that increase the risk of youth in foster care running away from their current placement. They analyzed data from more than 110,000 cases of youth ages 12 to 17 collected in the national Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, or AFCARS. Because the data spanned 118 counties and 39 states, the researchers controlled for items that may differ from location to location, such as the average size of a social worker's caseload.

Why read it: Youth who have been in foster care are overrepresented among homeless youth. Though previous studies have focused on youth who ran from their foster care placement, little attention has been paid to the child-, family-, and systems-level factors that impact their decisions to run. By recognizing the characteristics associated with running away, the authors write, child welfare agencies can better address young people's placement concerns before they leave.

Biggest takeaways from the research: At the individual and family levels, the authors found that:

  • Older youth ran away more often than younger youth, and girls ran more often than boys.
  • Youth diagnosed as “emotionally disturbed” were less likely than others to run away.
  • Youth removed from single father-headed households were more likely to run away than youth in families of married or unmarried couples. Youth removed from single mother-headed households were not more likely to run.
  • A young person's racial and ethnic background did not emerge as a risk factor.

Kim, Chenot, and Lee also identified the following trends based on systems-level factors:

  • The more times a youth had been removed from their biological family, the more likely they were to run away from a foster care placement.
  • Similarly, the more placements a youth experienced after their most recent removal from home, the more likely they were to run away.
  • Youth whose case plan goals were long-term foster care or emancipation were more likely to run away than youth whose goals were family reunification, adoption, or kinship care.

Kim et al. recommend that child welfare agencies adopt steps to help youth trust personnel and not feel judged by caregivers. Agencies can develop a foster parent training to reduce placement disruptions, for example, or offer older youth support services to encourage them to stay in a placement as they await emancipation or independent living. Further research is needed, they write, to explore the impact of other factors like concentration of poverty or local agencies' policies and practices.

Additional references: Find other resources about foster care youth in NCFY’s research library.

You may also wish to read this article exploring young people's knowledge of available services once they run from foster care.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, the Family and Youth Services Bureau, or the Administration for Children and Families.

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