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Youth who chronically AWOL from foster care: Why they run, where they go, and what can be done

This is the discussion section at the end of the fuller report by Marni Finkelstein, Mark Wamsley, Dan Currie and Doreen Miranda published by the Vera Institute of Justice in August 2004. You are encouraged to view the report here.

The information that this study gleaned from both youths and facility staff points to several areas where improvements may lessen a youth’s desire to AWOL. Many of the suggestions we provide, both for preventing and responding to AWOLs, are already practiced in some facilities that provide care to foster youths. Their emergence from our data indicates that further exploration and application may yield promising results.

We set out to discover why youths repeatedly AWOL from group foster care, what they experience while AWOL, how staff at their facilities respond, and what group home staff and foster agencies can do to address the problem. This discussion highlights the answers we found, and focuses on what can be done.

Some youths will run from foster care regardless of a facility’s policies or actions. At the same time, many of the motivations for going AWOL that youths described are known and changeable aspects of the foster care experience. For example, the overwhelming number of comments we received expressing a feeling of boredom among residents at congregate care facilities raises a real but manageable concern. Other research studies concur that steering youths away from boredom and other situations that may prompt AWOLs is a matter of providing proper diversions. Residential placements are dissimilar to home environments, or even to foster home environments, in that youths are sometimes not allowed outside of their residences without supervision. Boredom was not usually a problem during the school week, when the youths we interviewed had many regularly scheduled activities. During weekends and during the summer however, youths said that not enough planned activities existed and that whether they could go outside or had to stay inside, usually sleeping or watching television, depended on the whim of their direct supervisors.

While our study did not evaluate congregate care programming, the information we were given by many of the youths and some of the staff suggests that foster care providers should schedule enough engaging and enjoyable activities, especially during weekends and summertime. Researchers in London found that some facilities had success in preventing AWOLs by first identifying the youth’s leisure activities and interests as part of the assessment process when they entered care, then building activities related to those interests into the individual’s child-care plans. Carrying out these plans required a degree of organization, low staff turnover, and quality time spent with residents. Furthermore, efforts to socially integrate youths with peers outside of foster care may be beneficial, especially to those youths who reside in more isolated campus-like facilities outside of New York City. Studies have indicated that allowing youths to make friends and participate in excursions off campus may help them to develop individual, positive social relationships outside of foster care. Our finding that sexual issues were a contributing factor in some AWOLs presents a similar area for possible intervention. The reports of sexual activity among our sample corroborates other studies in the literature. For example, a study of foster youths in Baltimore found rates of sexual activity much higher than that of other young people, with 69 percent of the teenagers saying that they had sex before the age of 15. Another study conducted with a nationally representative sample of young women in foster care found that foster care was associated with younger age at first pregnancy and having more sexual partners than non-foster peers. Considering the risks associated with sexual activity, including sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, prostitution, and related AWOL risks, foster agencies could benefit from reviewing how their facilities address sexual education issues. For example, one study has shown promising results from the implementation of a new pregnancy/HIV/STD prevention curriculum that was customized for youth in foster care.

We did not set out to study the topic of prostitution, and none of the youths in this study admitted to engaging in prostitution. However, several participants raised the issue, which is cause for concern. And, although no one told us that prostitution was practiced within the facilities, many reported that it often occurred near group care settings. Facility managers should make sure that staff are paying attention to the activities going on in the surrounding area that may pose a risk to the youths. Managers should also insure that staff know the proper procedures for reporting this activity to the police and ACS. Broadly speaking, the relationships between foster youths and their peers and the facility staff lie at the core of many of the youths’ motivations to go AWOL. Commonly, the adolescents we spoke with said they felt no connection to others at their facilities, or that their relationships were quite bad, including incidents of repeated theft of personal possessions, bullying, and fights. When bad situations festered, youths ran from their placements. In this respect, close monitoring and involvement in peer situations by front line facility staff could reduce a youth’s perceived need to AWOL. Remediation measures could range from conflict resolution techniques to moving a particular youth to another house or floor at a facility.

Poor relations with staff members represent a more complex problem. In the worst situations, allegations of physical or verbal abuse by staff members should be taken seriously. In these cases, youths should be aware of the procedure for reporting these types of incidents. When a youth returns to foster care following an AWOL, the early reaction of the staff may affect a decision to AWOL in the future. Studies have shown that when young people return from an AWOL, they may appreciate a caring, sensitive response, including displays of emotion and concern, rather than anger or irritation. Some youths in our study told us they felt the urge to AWOL when they believed the staff performed only the minimum work required to keep their jobs. However, when emotional ties existed, youths told us that they sometimes felt guilty about going AWOL and leaving people who they thought were nice to them. Furthermore, without a strong relationship as a foundation, other forms of control are likely to fail. Research reports note that child care staff have found it beneficial to trace where individual youths had been during their AWOLS and to assess the risks associated with the AWOL behavior. If done sensitively, gathering this information upon the youths’ return helps build the feeling that adults in their lives are concerned about them and care about their well-being.

In a related area, youths in this study expressed a sense of frustration and disempowerment regarding the progress of their own cases. Youths often claimed that they were not receiving promised services, received little information about their cases, felt misled about changes to their placements, and did not have enough contact with family members. This suggests that more openness regarding case information and attentive case management can help remedy some aspects of the AWOL problem.

Sometimes, the youths’ own misbehavior brought restrictions that curtailed their freedom to leave their placements, creating the sense that foster care was a punitive institution in which they were being held. Furthermore, the use of sanctions or punitive measures in dealing with AWOLs may be counterproductive and reinforce negative behaviors. For example, one girl in our study told us that she AWOLed because she had been denied home passes as a punishment for past AWOLs. For her, it was a vicious cycle of AWOLing, being denied a home pass as a result, and having to AWOL again to see her family.

Of all preventive options, the idea of increased flexibility may be the most complex, but also the most effective strategy in diminishing the desire to AWOL. Older adolescents, especially foster youth who had reached the age of 18, felt that fixed policies unnecessarily conflicted with aspects of their daily lives. Some had children of their own or were engaged to be married and found curfews inappropriate and demeaning—especially when some staff members were of a similar age. Others, seeking evening job training or educational opportunities, encountered conflicts with the rigid application of AWOL rules. Many of these young people wanted separate policies for older adolescents and younger ones. For them, the rigidity of the AWOL rules undermined the legitimacy of rules generally. A more flexible set of rules tied to each individual’s ability to handle more responsibility might increase compliance. Although more flexibility could be beneficial for older youths who chronically AWOL, younger youths present a more complicated problem. While younger youths felt disappointed and frustrated at the policies surrounding passes for home visits, it is impossible to tell from our interviews if this feeling came about because of policies or the nuances of their individual cases.

They pointed to many features of the home pass system they hoped would change, such as being able to list family friends and relatives as their destination. These kinds of changes would require caseworkers to carefully assess the potential risks involved, since our research shows that younger youths can and do encounter high-risk situations. However, when the destination is known to the caseworker and is considered low-risk, granting home passes that are of sufficient length given a particular event or allowing home visits for crises or emergencies may help prevent AWOLs for younger youths who consistently overstay home visits. For youths who cannot go home for certain weekends or holidays, it may be useful to grant family contact, such as phone calls and onsite visits during holidays, special events, or family crises, and provide special activities with other residents.

The youths we spoke with had few concrete ideas when we asked them what would have stopped their AWOLing. Often they said that they had desired a bit of freedom from life in the congregate care setting, and many expressed a desire to be with their families or in their old neighborhoods. The older youths we interviewed said that they simply reached an age at which they were tired of running. Their decisions to stop AWOLing came after many, often dangerous, absences and a recognition of the cumulative effects of the behavior. The punishments, restrictions, and consequences they received because of their behavior, the disruption in their placements and education, and the simple fact that they were worrying the families and staff that cared about them may have led some of these youths to stop AWOLing over time. A few of the girls began to recognize the adult responsibility of caring for their own children and were frightened that AWOLing might jeopardize their custody. Others, like Olga, simply began to see their own future potential and the opportunities being offered to them:

[AWOLing] is not getting me anywhere. And after a while I just started getting bored, in and out and in and out, and I’m not getting really anything from it. There is really nothing out there for me, I feel like there is something in here for me—like the school, my bed and everything, all my belongings, is all here … It was this one morning I decided I am going to wake up and I am going to school, I’m going to do what I have to do, and I am going to try to get me a job. So I got me a job and I am going to school…and everything is working out fine.

Youths who chronically AWOL present a troubling problem for all those involved with their well-being. As with any individual who is making the transition from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, foster youths are seeking more freedom and independence. Some believe one way to achieve this is to run away. Therefore, child welfare systems need to find ways to appropriately address the issues that cause youths to AWOL.


This feature: Extract from Youth who chronically AWOL from foster care: Why they run, where they go, and what can be done. Vera Institute of Justice. PDF file at