Running Away and Absent Without Official Leave (AWOL) in the Child Welfare System

Unfortunately, running away, or being AWOL, is a relatively common and problematic behavior among children in out-of-home placements. The Child Welfare League of America reports that almost half of children in out-of-home care have run at some point in time, and that children in out-of-home care are twice as likely to run away as children living with their families. British studies have found that while youth in out-of-home care make up less than 1% of children in the country, they account for 30% of those reported to the police as missing. In addition, children in group or residential care were more likely to run away or to run away repeatedly, and were also more likely to travel further and to stay away longer.

There are many reasons why youth in out-of-home care run away, but they are typically divided into two categories: Push factors, or things the youth run away from, and Pull factors, or things the youth are running to. Push factors include environmental factors in their placements, such as a lack of adequate programming, feeling they are inappropriately placed, not receiving proper treatment, or having little or no independence or control over their own lives. Some youth report running from care due to abuse or bullying occurring in the placement, often at the hands of other youth in the home. Pull factors are influences outside of their placements that draw youth to leave in order to go to something or someone, such as siblings, family, friends, and boyfriends/girlfriends.

Youth who run away face obvious risks. Although it is suggested that youth who run from care are more likely to stay with friends and family than on the street, many youth are exposed to sexual assault or exploitation, violence, substance abuse, and criminal offences. Many youth who run away eventually return to care on their own.

Child Welfare agencies often struggle with how to address youth who run away from care. Several studies have examined this population in detail and developed suggestions, including:

  1. Provide a counseling session after a youth runs to find out more about why the youth went AWOL and where they went.
  2. Examine the placement and ensure that it is the most appropriate placement for the youth 
  3. Decrease boredom - Identify interests of the youth and activities that the youth enjoys and develop a care plan that incorporates those activities.
  4. Increase the youth's connection to the staff and peers and ensure that bullying and abuse are not occurring.
  5. Ensure that the youth has regular visits with family members and friends, when feasible.
  6. Provide youth with education regarding the risks and alternatives to going AWOL.


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