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Does the Home Free Program Affect Family Dynamics, Communication?

Young woman in a bus terminal.

A Family Reunification Intervention for Runaway Youth and Their Parents/Guardians: The Home Free Program” (abstract). Gary W. Harper, Donald Tyler, Gordon J. Vance, and Jennifer DiNicola. Child & Youth Services, Vol. 36, Issue 2 (2015).

What it’s about: Harper, Tyler, Vance, and DiNicola wanted to explore the ongoing influence of the Home Free Program, a service offered by the National Runaway Safeline and Greyhound Lines to reunite runaway youth with their families. With financial support from the Family and Youth Services Bureau, they conducted telephone interviews with 107 parents and guardians whose children (ages 14–20) had run away from home and used the program’s services in 2011. Participants answered both survey and open-ended questions about their relationship with their children before and after they ran away, as well as family members’ ongoing experiences with conflict and their comfort levels expressing themselves.

Why read it: Past research shows that young people who run away twice or more report a weaker sense of family cohesion than those who only leave once. Since 1995, the Home Free Program has provided trauma-sensitive crisis intervention and a free bus ticket to help young people reconnect with their families. Further evaluation was needed, however, to measure the program’s effects once a young person comes home. Better understanding parents’ response to the Home Free Program and their perceptions of its continued impact can inform family and youth workers who connect young people to the service. It can also inspire other agencies to adopt a similar approach.

Biggest takeaways from the research: The researchers organized participants’ open-ended responses into five main findings, namely that the Home Free Program:

  • Physically reunited youth and families.
  • Set expectations for returning home.
  • Opened lines of communication.
  • Facilitated appropriate group communication.
  • Increased family members' awareness of one another’s viewpoints.

Additionally, responses to the researchers' survey questions point to several positive outcomes. For example, participants reported significant increases in family expressiveness and decreases in family conflict after the intervention. Indeed, more than 60 percent of participants said they felt the issues that led to their child running away had been mostly or completely resolved by one month after their return. Nearly 75 percent said they felt that way by the time of the interview.

Parents and guardians also reported positive changes in their child’s behavior, including significant decreases in alcohol and drug use, unprotected sex, fighting, breaking the law, and running away from home. Also of note, less than one-quarter of participants’ children ran away again after using the program.

These combined findings, the authors write, build on previous research pointing to positive results for programs that actively involve parents and family members in supporting youth after bouts of homelessness.

Additional references: Look for more research on runaway youth in the NCFY library. Or learn about the National Runaway Safeline and its 40-plus years of experience connecting youth to resources and support.

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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