Research of Note for April 2005

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Foster Care Runaways

Youth Who Run Away from Substitute Care Chapin Hall Center for Children, University of Chicago
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At any given time, most children who are listed as “missing” from foster care systems are runaways. This study, the largest effort to examine the circumstances of those youth, found patterns that should help youth workers better serve them.

Youth who run away from out-of-home care are likely to have been moved around within child welfare systems and to have lived in residential care facilities, this report says. They are also likely to be girls, to have entered the child welfare system as adolescents and to have substance abuse or mental health problems.

To get a handle on the scope and nature of the problem, Chapin Hall collaborated with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) to conduct an analysis of DCFS administrative records, and to interview youth who ran away from out-of-home placements. Researchers also interviewed foster parents and child welfare professionals who knew the youths.

The researchers found that from 1993 to 2003, more than 14,000 Illinois foster youth were reported as first-time runaways. The total of all runaway incidents for youth (ages 12 to 18) in out-of-home care doubled from 1998 to 2003, which researchers attributed to youth who fled more than once.

Youth placed in residential care facilities were twice as likely to run away as those placed with foster families, and three times as likely to run as those placed with relatives. Girls were 40 percent more likely to run from a placement than boys. Placement with a sibling reduced the chances a youth would run away.

Some of the 42 Cook County runaways who were interviewed spoke of a strong pull to connect with their biological families, often to help their mothers or siblings. They described their actions as running to their families rather than running from foster care. Paradoxically, they also reported a need to run away from their families from time to time.

Other youth told the interviewers that they were “already grown” and had experience in taking care of themselves – something the researchers described as a “natural quest to assert their adulthood” and not necessarily “a sign of oppositional behavior.” Some girls who had experienced a lot of trauma – such as sexual and physical abuse, the birth or loss of a child, or the deaths of family members – said they ran away to free themselves from stress and worry. “These youth uniformly felt uncared for and unattached, and their runs seemed triggered by nearly random opportunities,” the report says.

A longing to connect with others who cared about and understood them emerged as a common theme in the interviews with youth. Many of them talked of trying to recreate a sense of family by reaching out to friends, caseworkers and foster parents. Chapin Hall urges child welfare agencies to view running away as a coping behavior that is a response to overwhelming events, an effort to maintain bonds with peers and family members, and a response to feelings of being mistreated.

In a statement accompanying the report, Chapin Hall Director Mark Courtney, one of the principal investigators for the study, said, “Our findings demonstrate the need to create opportunities for foster youth to engage in constructive ways with their peers and connect with caring adults, and for child welfare authorities to treat any run as a serious cause for concern.”

Traumatic Stress and the Child Welfare System

Helping Children in the Child Welfare System Heal from Trauma: A Systems Integration Approach National Child Traumatic Stress Network
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Foster children have lived through traumatic experiences, including abuse, neglect and removal from their homes, note researchers at the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN). This study – the first to examine how youth-serving agencies address the trauma of maltreated children who enter child welfare systems – found that the ability to assess and treat the stress caused by those experiences varies widely among the agencies.

NCTSN surveyed 53 organizations on the ways in which trauma-related information is gathered, assessed and shared among agencies. The agencies were in California, Connecticut, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Tennessee, Washington, Maryland and Wisconsin.

“We found great inadequacies and inconsistencies in staff training, trauma assessment, treatment and referral,” NCTSN member Charles Wilson, executive director of the Chadwick Center for Children and Families in San Diego, said in a statement that accompanied the report.

A child’s traumatic experiences – especially when combined with environmental factors such as poverty – can lead to a variety of emotional problems and a greater likelihood of social, behavioral and psychiatric problems, the study says. It says traumatic stress interferes with children’s ability to concentrate and learn, can delay body and brain development, and can lead to depression and other mental health problems, substance abuse, acting out, educational struggles and problems with health and employment in the future.

The report says systems that regularly interact with traumatized children – such as family court, child welfare, foster care, mental health and school – should train their staffs about child trauma issues and standardize their intake, referral and treatment protocols to optimize their ability to stabilize the children.

Among the key findings:

• Most agencies dealing with maltreated children do not receive or gather in-depth information about a child’s trauma history.

• More than one-third of agencies do not train staff to assess child trauma.

• Fewer than half of agencies train staff about effective evidence-based treatments for child traumatic stress.

• Almost two-thirds of agency staff who refer children for treatment say they rarely or never consider whether a treatment provider uses state-of-the-art practices.

• Schools are less aware of trauma-related issues and interactions than are other agencies.

The researchers caution that many organizations working with traumatized children focus only on addressing reactions, such as anger and irritability, or symptoms such as avoidance, but fail to address the underlying traumas.

NCTSN urges that agencies work together to assemble a full trauma profile that includes disruptions that may have occurred during a child’s development. Without an understanding of these complex histories, the report says, organizations may miss opportunities to address the underlying causes of behavioral and emotional problems and the factors that rekindle them. That increases the likelihood that they may also miss opportunities to build supportive environments in which the children can recover.

The federal government established the NCTSN in 2001 to improve the quality and availability of therapeutic services to traumatized youth. The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration funds the network.