Why foster children in group homes runaway

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How would you feel if your teen one day after school came home, packed a bag, grabbed his allowance, and very quietly snuck out the back door? You call his name. No answer. You call his cell phone. No answer.

You wonder if maybe he went to a friend’s house and called his friend’s mom. She answers! You ask, “Have you seen DJ?” She says, “He is not here, but let me ask Devin!” Devin is her son. She calls Devin’s name, and he says, “I haven’t seen DJ. He wasn’t at school today!” “Alright,” you say, “Sorry to have bothered you.” And you hang up the phone.

How would you feel? Would you be worried? Scared? Of course, you would! There’s nothing more terrifying than losing a child. 

Who worries when a child runs away from in-patient care?

Unfortunately at a residential group home, some of the kids we work with who run away have no family other than their social worker. And by the few phone calls I’ve seen, hardly any worried at all. And this bothered me. Although the cottage phone was working, the social worker never called, let alone checked in with the foster child. They didn’t ask if they felt safe or how they were doing. The only interaction they received was when the social worker conducted a monthly face-to-face visit for their Child and Family Team meeting (CFT).

I am sure they were collaborating or interacting with the program director or case manager, but communicating with the foster child on the day-to-day issues and challenges was something I never observed.  

So what about the residential treatment counselors? Do they worry?

NO! Staff who have a duty to be professional child care providers really don’t care. 

Disclaimer: not every residential treatment counselor is heartless. Some excellent RT counselors have amazing hearts who are in it for the right reasons. Unfortunately, there are just as many, if not more, staff who are not in it for the right reasons. I’ve experienced that myself. 

If anything, they are happy. Think about it: a residential group home will still get paid because that bed is still being billed regardless if the child sleeps in it or not for at least seven days. A child on runaway status can have an open placement if the CSW agrees and files a Bed Hold Agreement and Payment Authorization form (DCFS 4009).

The Group home only has to ensure the three following requirements: 

  1. Secure all their clothing and belongings from the placement by having either the caregiver deliver the child/NMD’s (nonminor dependent) possessions to the office or the DCFS office designee pick-up the child’s/NMD’s possessions from the caregiver.
  2. Store the child/NMD’s (nonminor dependent) belongings in the regional DCFS office’s appointed area.
  3. Keep the child/NMD’s (nonminor dependent) clothing and belongings for a minimum of one year, or until the child/NMD is found, or the court directs DCFS how and when to dispose of the child/NMD’s (nonminor dependent) belongings.

Not to mention there will be one less child, so same pay for the facility and less work for the staff. The facility and my coworkers had nothing to complain about when there was one less child on their hands to manage. Working in a residential treatment facility, it’s common for the staff to talk amongst each other and agree, “I hope that kid doesn’t come back!” Relief flooded their bodies as they watched two or more of the residents run off the grounds.    

If you really want to know what group homes care about, you don’t have to look too far.

The answer is licensing because if they are not following regulations or protocols, a residential treatment center or group home will not get paid. A police report is filed and documentation completed, but other than that, no one tries to fix the problem. Not a social worker, not the STRTP program director or unit manager, and not even licensing will try and figure out how can we prevent future foster children from running away.

The downside to the department of children and family services, and I’m sure it’s the same for the foster children, is you see and experience so much that you become desensitized to things. If the group home staff see a child they know will run away, it doesn’t bother them like the general population. They’ve seen it all.

I once took 20 minutes to do a community search, driving around where you think a child would go. A campus supervisor told me, “You’re taking too long!” They’re not searching for hours. The “search” was really driving around the neighborhood for a few minutes so that when they write up their police report, they can check the box for yes, the facility did a community search. But it isn’t like they are searching for the foster child and worried, wondering, “Oh, I hope DJ is okay?”

After the community search, staff will then call law enforcement with the following information:

  • Photograph of the child
  • Description of clothing last seen 
  • Date of birth 
  • Last location of the child 
  • Any distinguishing marks or tattoos 

Once the child is gone and has been on runaway status for a few weeks, the group home cannot bill for their empty bed. The group home staff are instructed to put all the runaway’s belongings in trash bags. I once tried to wash the resident’s clothes before placing them in a black trash bag but the unit manager and my coworkers told me not to do so. It was as if the child deserved to be reprimanded for being lazy or entitled.

Mixing the dirty clothes with the clean clothes, the bags are then placed in a room full of other trash bags as the staff prepares the room for their next foster child, or should I say, victim.

DJ’s open bed is quickly replaced. As staff store his black trash bag of belonging in the storing room, he’s become just another statistic.

From the child’s point of view, when they run away, they know the group home staff aren’t filing a police report or doing a community search because they are worried. They are doing what they had to do for licensing and also so they didn’t get into trouble. Doing what they had to do so that they can cover their own butts. Children know when they are unwanted or unloved, stating, “They don’t care about me!”

The problem isn’t just a lack of supervision or lack of real activities. The problem is really a lack of connection. Yet, when a child lives in a group home, residential treatment facility, or mental institution, the child cannot connect. Congregate care is not a foster home. It’s not living with a family. You are living in a campus-type setting of some sort. You have staff rotating on shifts that are doing your daily care and then have clinical staff on-site for therapy and other kinds of treatment. 

Which brings me to the question: Why do youth run away?

Youth run for several reasons:

Reason #1: Many of the youth described their biological families as exerting a distinct emotional pull on them. In some cases, this was manifest in the urge to reconnect or stay connected. (Page 3)

Reason #2: The struggle for autonomy and drive for normalcy often play out in runaway behavior. Like other teens, foster youth experience the drive for autonomy and for progressively greater freedom. Unlike other teens, their environment often offers little safety for experimentation and little flexibility to accommodate individual preferences.  (Page 3)

Reason #3: Beyond the potential dangers running may present, it may also be a red flag that there are other things going on with youth while in care. They may be experiencing harm in their placements, missing family, receiving inadequate attention to their mental health needs, or lacking access to normative youth experiences such as sports. (Page 1)

Reason #4: From the perspective of the young people interviewed, running away might be viewed as a coping behavior and an attempt to make connections with family, friends, in a community where they sensed (or hoped) they belonged, were cared about, and were wanted. (Page 6)

Reason #5:  The reasons youth run from their foster care placements can be classified into two basic categories: (1) wanting to be with family and friends and (2) disliking their placement. (Page v.)

Reason #6:  Youths wanted more freedom and fewer rules, reflected in more trust and more respect. (Page vi).

Reason #7: Youths felt that they should be allowed to see their family more often and for group homes to give out passes more easily. Help should be given to facilitate visits with their family. (Page vi).

Reason #8: In general, there was a widespread feeling among youths that they need someone to talk to, who will listen to them and help them work through problems. Youths in group homes felt that therapists in group homes turn over too frequently. (Page vi.)

Reason #9: These youth uniformly felt uncared for and unattached, and their runs seemed triggered by nearly random opportunities, such as an impulse to see the ocean or an invitation from friends or strangers. (Page 4)

Reason #10:  They perceived a lack of movement in their cases and disliked restrictions including curfews and punishments such as limits on TV or going outside. Many in the group homes felt bored with nothing to do during evenings, weekends, and summer. They also did not feel connected with either their peers or staff in their facilities. (Page 7)

Reason #11: A large number of youths expressed unhappiness with their current placement. Youths in group homes would discuss not liking their peers in the group home noting that other youths would misbehave, use drugs, steal items from other youths, and generally create too much “drama.” They complained about the need for passes to leave the house, the excessive rules and restrictions, and the unresponsiveness of staff. They felt group homes offer too little freedom and too few activities. Several referred to feeling “cooped up” and felt bored with nothing to do. (Page 26)

Reason #12: Finally, several youths recognized their own role in the decision to run away. One [youth from the runaway sample] felt she needed to be more patient and another felt he needed to be less hard-headed. Several of the youth have come to realize they need anger management. In general, there was a widespread feeling among youths that they need someone to talk to, who will listen to them and help work through problems… Youths in group homes noted that they got helped by therapists, but that therapists in group homes did not stay long; the development of trust and rapport with one therapist would have to begin anew with the next therapist. (Page 48)

What do youth suggest?

Suggestion #1:  Youths who were unhappy with their placements felt that a change in placement would have prevented them from running away. Youths wanted more freedom and fewer rules, reflected in more trust and more respect.  (Page 46)

Suggestion #2: Youths in group homes felt there should be more to do at the group home and more activities that take them away from the group home. Some felt the weekend was the time they needed this most while others felt there needed to be more to do after school. (Page 47)

Suggestion #3: Youths also felt that group homes need more caring staff, foster homes need better foster parents, and caseworkers need to listen to youths and be more responsive. Many felt these are all contributing factors to preventing running away. (Page 48)

Suggestion #4: Both young people and informants stress the importance of opportunities to participate in activities that give foster youth access to developmentally appropriate experiences. Child welfare authorities should work to ensure that foster parents and residential care providers do not erect unnecessary barriers to the participation of foster youth in the normal activities of adolescence. They should also work with educational authorities to ensure that foster youth are not stigmatized in school. (Page 5)

Kids in these residential treatment centers, group homes, and mental institutions deserve better care! Most of these problems could be addressed, but it takes everyone from the top of every residential facility to the bottom to fix the problem. It takes:

Treatment Counselors who care.

Cottage managers who care.

Executive directors who care.

Assistant directors who care.

Directors who care.

Senior vice presidents who care.

Social workers who care.

And lastly, licensing who cares.

The state provides money, so why aren’t these problems being addressed. Please join the search and help Fostering Teens Voices end this injustice. Every child deserves someone worrying about them, because of the attachments they’ve made in a home. 


Work Cited: 

  1. Missing or Absent from Care Children/Nonminor Dependents
  2. Call Law Enforcement 10.5.1 (page 13)
  3. Youth Who Run Away from Out-of-Home Care
  4. Running away from Foster Care: Youth’s Knowledge and Access of Services



One comment on “Why foster children in group homes runaway

  1. How can I help s child who has run away from a group home? He’s not my child, but my child’s step brother. I want to try to get custody. Can I just go get him since he’s ran away?

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