Protecting Bonds, Improving Systems, Ensuring Fit: Understanding and preventing youth runaway decisions in foster care

Kaela Byers, Jared Barton, Whitney Grube, Jessica Wesley, Becci Akin, Emily Hermesch, Erin Felzke, Rachelle Roosevelt 

Key Takeaways

  • To steer youth through adolescence in foster care, toward the goal of permanency, child welfare practice must strive to maintain familial and kinship bonds while supporting development of new bonds in quality placements.
  • Child welfare policies should elevate youths’ sense of autonomy, honor family preservation, and broker individualized supportive services, beginning from initial contact and following youth throughout their entire child welfare involvement.
  • When foster placement is necessary, placements must be high quality, well-aligned to individual youth needs, and practice a shared parenting approach.

Understanding Youth Absences from Care

Children and youth who run away from foster care placements face dangers to health, safety, and well-being. They are also at particular risk of adverse child welfare outcomes, including reduced likelihood of eventual permanency.i While relatively few youths are absent from foster care at any given point—as of February 2022, 1.24% of Kansas’ caseload were reported as runawayii—these official figures are often undercounts, and running from foster placements is far from rare. Regardless of the absolute number, these children, and the system failures their experiences reveal must be priorities.

Though the precise causes of a youth’s decisions to run away from foster care are often as dynamic—even impulsive—as adolescence itself, prior research points to factors that may contribute to risk of running away. Among the most crucial is the child’s age; children between the ages of 12-18 make up 90% of children who run from care,iii and a one-year increase in age increases the likelihood of running by 18%.iv Age at first removal from the family of origin also matters; for each one-year increase in age at first removal, the risk of runaway increases by 4%.v Independent of age, youth who have issues of substance use disorder, conduct disorders, and/or mental illness are also more likely to Youth are most likely to run within the first 6 months of entering foster care.vii For a variety of reasons, having previously run away significantly increases future absences from foster care.viii

Some factors contributing to runaway decisions are located within the child welfare system itself. Crucially, placement instability can contribute to—as well as result from—running from foster care.ix Research reveals that each additional placement increases the odds of running by 4%, and each removal increases odds by 23%.x Long-term case planning can have immediate consequences for children’s outcomes; one study found youth with a permanency plan other than reunification were 89% more likely to run away,xi and other research found that youth placed in congregate care are more likely to run.xii

What We Examined

This mixed-methods research i examined administrative records for 1,127 youth ages 12 and older and conducted qualitative interviews with a subsample of 20 youth in out-of-home placement, with and without previous runaway episodes. These data were analyzed to systematically predict youth absence from care, center youths’ voices, and inform practice and policy recommendations. We used latent class analysis to identify subgroups among children in foster care, characterized by critical life experiences (e.g., maltreatment history, system interactions, bias, exposure to violence) and regression to determine if group membership predicted youth decisions to run from care. Our qualitative analysis explicitly framed youths’ experiences as key to reforming the child welfare system to improve youths’ outcomes.

This brief summarizes key findings of the research and highlights critical areas of system reform youth endorse. Widespread adoption of these recommendations will mitigate the challenges that prompt decisions to run from care and realize a system that helps ensure youths in foster care enter adulthood with the network of support necessary to thrive throughout their lives.

What We Found

Our analysis identified four distinct groups of youths within the sample of youth in placement with one foster care case management agency. Membership in these groups was a significant predictor of running from foster care. More than 80% of youth in the sample were characterized as belonging to Group 1—characterized by experiences of stable family connections and the fewest out-of-home placements. as compared to other groups. Youth in this group were 82% less likely to have run away than youth in Group IV – the group characterized by the highest likelihood of running away. Youth in Group IV experienced a high number of placements, high likelihood of juvenile justice involvement, and family instability, supporting previous findings that lack of stability can beget additional instability.i This group included more males, who were 62% more likely to run away than females. It was also more racially diverse than the overall sample—a particularly relevant factor given entrenched racial disparity in child welfare. In addition to group membership, demographics and family backgrounds affected youths’ decisions to run, consistent with prior research. For every sibling youth had, likelihood of running away was reduced by 15%, and for every year increase in age, youths were 29% more likely to run from foster care.

Qualitative interviews investigated—from youths’ own perspectives—themes youths view as mitigating or exacerbating decisions to run away. For example, placements that are uncomfortable or insufficiently matched to youths’ needs may become untenable when caseworkers do not sufficiently attend to youths’ distress. Strict rules may exclude potential kinship homes youths see as viable placements. With their wishes ignored or overruled, youths’ runaway behaviors may be interpreted as running to family connections or from system restrictions—or both.

Youth Absences


What It Means For Practice And Policy

This research identified three key recommendations for system reforms to address shortcomings that, today, fail to protect against the risk of running from foster care. Here, we examine those recommendations and the qualitative evidence that informs them.

Recommendation 1: Improve family visitation and maintenance of family and kin connections.

“That's the only reason I came back [to be with mom]... if I hadn’t had that option, then I never would have came back.”

“I didn't want my brothers to see me like that…if I continued to do the stuff that I was doing, or I didn't come back they wouldn't really have anybody to look up to.”

Even when youths’ journey to foster care was precipitated by considerable risk and even maltreatment in their families of origin, crucial relationships often endured. In addition to broader impacts on the development and later success of youth in the child welfare system, sustaining these family connections while youth are in foster care, despite changes in case plan goals, can help to prevent absences from care or incentivize their return.

Conversely, when child welfare practices, geographic distance, foster parent schedules, and/or resource constraints disrupt youths’ connections to their families or other significant relationships, the interruptions may increase youths’ vulnerability. Erosion of family bonds can contribute to runaway indirectly, by contributing to youths’ dissatisfaction with the system, or more directly, by prompting youth to run as a sole means of restoring contacts.

Evidence about the potency of these connections for keeping youth in care underscores the priority that should be placed on this aspect of child welfare practice. Youth spoke compellingly about valuable relationships that facilitated their stability and healing, as well as the pains of fractures in these connections. Clarity about the fundamental significance of these connections and the detrimental impact of severing important relationships can guide child welfare practitioners as they are routinely tasked with making difficult judgments and allocating scarce resources. When youth run to restore relationships, their absence from foster care should be considered a signal of their socioemotional needs rather than defiance—and addressed as such.

To better support visitation that sustains youths’ family connections, we recommend:

  • Child welfare policy and routine practice must support maintaining ongoing family connections. Policy must prioritize more frequent and extended visitation and daily involvement of family members and those youth identify as “family”.
  • Ensure authentic maintenance of connections are not interrupted by or tied to family compliance or youth discipline issues. Youth should be able to count on visitation and other practices that help to maintain the relationships they value most.
  • Apply shared parenting model to foster care case management practice. When children and youth cannot remain safely with their families of origin, practitioners and foster parents should incorporate relatives into efforts to support young people in their daily lives (e.g., medical appointments, school events, routine phone contact) and plan for their future involvement as a matter of routine practice.


Recommendation 2: Support permanency approaches and placement decisions that honor youths’ priorities and amplify their voices.

“I gave multiple hints to my caseworkers, and like this is not a good home for me, and I just don’t fit in…they’d say well you have no other place to go. So, I would act up to be out of there.”

Increasing autonomy is a core aspect of adolescent development. Children in foster care, whose lives have often been characterized by losses out of their control, have particular need to influence the circumstances of their own lives and to be heard by those with power over their futures, but the institution of child welfare does not always make space for youth to exercise agency. At the core of many of the frustrations youth described—with worker turnover that upends relationships, obstacles to placement with family members, ill fit between their needs and the placement—is a pervasive sense that the child welfare system minimizes or denies youth perspectives. This sense of being ignored and overruled can lead youth to feel desperate—and to flee.


“I didn’t run because I thought I was funny. I didn't run it because I wanted to...I ran to make a point, and they didn't listen to me.”

Child welfare policy reform should address the components that contribute to this sense of disempowerment. It is also crucial that child welfare practices recognize the wisdom of centering youths’ insights and equipping them with true power to help shape their approaching futures. Actions steps necessary for amplifying youth voice include:

  • Invest in worker tenure as the foundation for the rapport required for youth to express their true needs. While caseworker burnout and associated turnover are recognized as crises for contract agencies and state authorities, these system shortcomings are also urgent concerns for young people who rely on stable professional relationships, as they navigate to adulthood.
  • Consider and adopt eligibility criteria for kinship placement that minimize restrictions. While not every relative is an appropriate placement, really listening to youth demands workers evaluate not only perceived risks, but also the possibilities of placements that preserve key connections.
  • Allow youth to have authentic voice in placement decisions. This research underscores that preventing youth absence from care must include attending to their voices, throughout the child welfare system. These young people—and all people—want to be heard. And they deserve to be.


Recommendation 3: Improve placement quality and individualization of services.

Some youths described running away from placements where they were emotionally abused, isolated, and/or treated harshly, by foster parents and/or their biological children. Others ran from placements not because they were inadequate in an absolute sense, but because they were inappropriate and uncomfortable, often due to youths’ identities and/or specific needs. When their concerns were unheard or discounted, these youth ran from their foster care placement.

“In one of my homes they didn't even treat us like they should have. They treated us like we were dogs basically. We cooked, we cleaned, we did everything for them. And they let their own children, like their biological children do whatever they wanted to. And it kind of made us mad and hurt because we just wanted like to be loved and have a home. And they were just treating us like trash.And I'm like, I can't handle this.”

Conversely, some youths detailed how placements with foster families prepared and matched to meet their needs facilitated their well-being and—crucially—kept them safely in care.

“They don't give up on me whenever things do get hard. The fact that they can sit there and actually talk to me, and calm me down and stuff, like honestly at this point I think of them more as parents than I do just somebody I'm with for right now. Like I think of them more as family than I do a temporary placement.”

“I want a trampoline…it’s just a foster care rule, like, we’re not allowed to have them…I guess they don’t want to be like sued or whatever.”

“I wish that they would see where I'm at now, and how much I have improved and kind of base how they treat me off of how much I've improved instead of…putting all these like, regulations and stuff on me. I wish that they would like maybe come to the house, you know, and do their checks. But I wish that they weren't like, behind a phone telling me what I got to do. You know, I wish that they would trust me more.”

In addition to the imperatives of recruiting, retaining, and supporting foster parents for high-quality placements that meet youths’ specific needs, preventing youth runaway requires examining the structural constraints that can make out-of-home placement feel oppressive and inequitable. These are the strict rules against which youth are pushing when they run. Here, youths protested rigid restrictions that forbid trampolines and prohibit foster parents from allowing teenagers to stay home alone, attend sleepovers, and have cell phones. Crucially, their resistance is more than usual teenage rebellion. These youth aim to escape restrictions that highlight how atypical their teenage experience is. To facilitate foster families’ efforts to create normalized family life, youths recommend:

  • Examine and reconsider regulations that focus on state liability, rather than optimal outcomes for youth in care. The greatest risks we face in the child welfare system are those that stem from insufficiently supporting youths and foster families in forging the connections that facilitate thriving.
  • Review and relax placement rules to normalize the family experience, empower trained and certified foster families, and minimize distinctions between foster youth and other youth in the foster family.  Child welfare policy should incorporate the wisdom of youth and foster families, to ensure that youth are not punished for being in foster care through unnecessarily restrictive policy that ‘others’ youth in foster care.
  • Consider youths’ unique needs—including related to sexual and racial identity—in placement planning. Child welfare practice must prioritize recruiting and retaining qualified families who equip the system to provide appropriate placements for the increasingly diverse youths in care. More Black and Brown foster families are needed to address the systemic racism that maintains racial disproportionality in the system, as are foster placements committed to providing gender-affirming foster care.
  • Screen youth for risk for runaway and individualize wraparound supports and enhanced placements. Research points to factors that help to predict youth risk of runaway and can inform early identification and intervention, for improved outcomes.



    i. Akin, B. A. (2011). Predictors of foster care exits to permanency: A competing risks analysis of reunification, guardianship, and adoption. Children and Youth Services Review, 33(6), 999-1011.

    ii. Kansas Department of Children and Families. (2022). (rep.). SFY2022 Out of Home Placement Settings. Kansas Department for Children and Families. Retrieved April 15, 2022, from….

    iii. Courtney, M. E., & Zinn, A. (2009). Predictors of running away from out-of-home care. Children and Youth Services Review, 31(12), 1298–1306.

    iv. Nesmith, A. (2006). Predictors of Running Away from Family Foster Care. Child Welfare, 85(3), 585–609.

    v. Lin, C.-H. (2012). Children who run away from Foster Care: Who are the children and what are the risk factors? Children and Youth Services Review, 34(4), 807–813.

    vi. Nesmith, A. (2006). Predictors of Running Away from Family Foster Care. Child Welfare, 85(3), 585–609.

    vii. Pergamit, M. R., & Ernst, M. (2011). (rep.). Running Away from Foster Care: Youths' Knowledge and Access of Services (pp. 1–54). Chicago, IL: The Urban Institute.

    viii. Courtney, M. E., Skyles, A., Miranda, G., Zinn, A., Howard, E., & Goerge, R. M. (2005). (rep.). Youth Who Run Away from Out-of-Home Care (pp. 1–6). Chicago, IL: Chapin Hall.

    ix. Kim, H., Chenot, D., & Lee, S. (2015). Running away from out-of-home care: A multilevel analysis. Children & Society, 29(2), 109–121.

    x. Lin, C.-H. (2012). Children who run away from Foster Care: Who are the children and what are the risk factors? Children and Youth Services Review, 34(4), 807–813.

    xi. Nesmith, A. (2006). Predictors of Running Away from Family Foster Care. Child Welfare, 85(3), 585–609.

    xii. Wulczyn, F. (2020). Race/ethnicity and running away from Foster Care. Children and Youth Services Review, 119, 105504.

    xiii. Byers, K., Barton, J., Grube, W., Wesley, J., Akin, B. A., Hermesch, E., Felzke, E., & Roosevelt, R. (2023). “I Ran to Make a Point”: Predicting and Preventing Youth Runaway from Foster Care. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 1-24.

    xiv. Ibid.


    Byers, K., Barton, W., Grube, W., Wesley, J., Akin, B., Hermesch, E., Felzke, E., & Roosevelt, R. (2023). Protecting Bonds, Improving Systems, Ensuring Fit: Understanding and Preventing Youth Runaway Decisions in Foster Care. University of Kansas School of Social Welfare Center for Research to Transform Systems for Family, Community, and Social Justice: Lawrence, KS.

    For full study results, see:

    Byers, K., Barton, J., Grube, W., Wesley, J., Akin, B. A., Hermesch, E., Felzke, E., & Roosevelt, R. (2023). “I Ran to Make a Point”: Predicting and Preventing Youth Runaway from Foster Care. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 1-24.