Running Away from Foster Care: Youths’ Knowledge and Access of Services

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The Urban Institute, Chapin Hall (University of Chicago)

A new study from the University of Chicago showed that high percentages of young people in foster care run away from care at some point, and usually more than once.

The sample for the study consisted of 50 youths in foster care between the ages of 14 and 17, 25 in Chicago and 25 in Los Angeles County.

A 2004 report found that 46 percent of 17-year-olds in substitute care in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin stated that they had run away from care at some point in time. Nearly two thirds of those did so more than once.

A similar study in 2009 of 17-year-olds in Los Angeles found 36 percent had run away at least twice.

The reasons for their leaving care were usually because they wanted to be with family or friends, or they did not like their placement.

Youths were more likely to run away if they had had a large number of placements, or if they were placed in a residential facility instead of a foster home or with relatives.

The report also revealed that most youths return to care voluntarily after running away. Their reasons for returning included wanting to be home, wanting to be in school or avoiding getting themselves or others in trouble.

But they are still very likely to run away again. One in four of the sampled youths had run away more than 10 times.

This report found that the majority of youths polled do not hate the foster care system, or blame it for being removed from their home. They just want it to work better.

In general there was a widespread feeling among youths interviewed that they needed someone to talk to, who would listen to them and help them work through problems. Many felt they couldn't talk to their foster parents, and that the therapists in group homes were never there long enough to really help them.

Caseworkers did not seem to provide necessary support either. Youths said that they thought caseworkers should visit more often and ask the young people their opinions instead of focusing only on the foster parent or a visual inspection to determine if everything is fine.

Free, 61 pages,

  • Katy Walsh

    The National Runaway Switchboard contracted the National Opinion Research Center to conduct a comprehensive research study on youth’s knowledge and access to services. The research, conducted in Chicago and Los Angeles, has been published in three segments: youth in shelters and on the streets, youth in schools and youth in foster care. All three reports are available at