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Better Services for Older Population Part of Evolving Effort

CHICAGO, March 17, 2005 - A report that examines the numbers, characteristics, risk factors and experiences of youth who run away from substitute care in Illinois will be used to sharpen the focus on existing programs to help runaways and develop new approaches to improve services for a smaller, older and more diverse population of children in state care.

The report, "Youth Who Run Away from Substitute Care," was prepared at the request of the Department of Children of Family Services (DCFS) by the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago. It is the first in-depth quantitative and qualitative analysis of youth who run away from out-of-home care.

A roundtable panel gathered today at the Gleacher Center to react to the report and discuss ways to improve outcomes for runaways. Moderated by Robin Robinson of WFLD-TV FOX 32 News, panelists included:

  • Mark Courtney, Director of Chapin Hall Center for Children
  • Robert Hargesheimer, Chicago Police Youth Commander
  • Robert Harris, Cook County Public Guardian
  • Judge Curtis Heaston, Presiding Judge of the Juvenile Division of the Juvenile Justice and Child Protection Department
  • Bryan Samuels, DCFS Director
  • Tara Turner, 20, mother of children ages 3 and 1-month and participant in Pathways Pregnant and Parenting program
  • Rick Velasquez, Executive Director of Youth Outreach Services, Inc.

DCFS Director Bryan Samuels said the report will guide the development of new approaches designed specifically for runaway youth and is part of an ongoing effort to improve the quality of care the department delivers to the lowest number of children in 17 years. DCFS is responsible for more than 18,000 children today, a steep reduction from the 51,000 children in state care as recently as 1997 and the smallest population since 1988.

"Policy changes may have reduced the total number of children, but that doesn't mean our job is easier. If anything, our challenge is more difficult as we adapt the agency's practices to respond to and anticipate the needs of specific segments of children, such as youth who run away from the care we provide," said Director Samuels.

"We began a long-term process to adapt our policies and practices because we recognized the DCFS population is smaller, older, more diverse than ever, stays in the system longer and presents more complex demands that require us to do a better job," he said. The report analyzed existing data and included findings from interviews with 42 youth who ran away, as well as foster parents and child welfare professionals. It does not include policy improvement recommendations..

"We asked Chapin Hall not to make recommendations about what DCFS should or should not do about runaways because we want to talk honestly and openly with the child welfare community about how to use the report and where we go from here to determine what we should do," said Director Samuels.

"Our goal is to have an effective response concerning kids who run away. As part of an overall effort to serve kids better, we're more interested in reducing their time on the run and the possibility that they will run again than simply decreasing the number of kids who run," he said.

However, he pointed out the number of missing youth in DCFS care dropped 18 percent in the last year, to 266 in March, 2005 from 324 in March, 2004.

DCFS will use several key findings from the report to guide next steps:

  • The likelihood of runaway is increasing, a trend "due almost entirely to an increase in subsequent runs rather than first runs," according to the report.
  • There is a correlation between youth in multiple foster care placements and runaways. According to the report, a youth in a second placement is 80 percent more likely to run for the first time than a youth in a first placement. Further, a youth with five placements is two-and-a-half times more likely to run as a child in first placement.
  • African-American females are more likely to run away than other youth demographic.
  • Youth who have run away once are more likely to run away again.
  • Youth with substance abuse problems and mental health diagnoses are at heightened risk of running away.
  • Placement type is a major factor in the likelihood of runaway, with youth in foster home care less likely to run away than those in residential care, and those living in the home of a relative even less likely to run.

DCFS has launched several initiatives in the past year under the umbrella of a "Lifetime Approach" to alter and strengthen the direction of child welfare in Illinois:

Missing child unit: DCFS established a Child Location and Support Unit for Missing Children in November, 2003 and developed a computer tracking system unique to Illinois. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), in partnership with DCFS, also provided specialized training focused on documenting and locating missing wards. As a result over the last two years, the number of youth on run has substantially been reduced and the length of time on run has also significantly decreased.
Law enforcement liaison: Roberta M. Bartik was recently appointed to this newly created position at DCFS that helps the Department with issues involving police investigations related to runaways.
Intensive Stabilization: Targeted strategies to stabilize older youth that have a pattern of multiple placements and run behavior.
Older Adolescent Foster Homes: Recruitment of new foster parents for older youth during their transition to independence.
Residential Performance Unit: Tracking youth during stays in residential facilities to ensure progress and timely discharge to community-based living.
Integrated Assessment: Conducting comprehensive clinical analysis of each child when they enter care and developing a service plan based on the assessment
Enhanced Services for Shelter Care Clients: Maintaining a child's school of origin when that child's placement is disputed and the child is placed in shelter care in Chicago. Transportation services are central to this effort through a joint effort with Chicago Public Schools.

DCFS will use the report to identify who runs away from out-of-home care, trends in running away over time, what happens to youth when they run away and specific areas where interventions may be targeted, such as: the role of caseworkers, importance of connections to others, ties to family, need for normalcy, mental health and substance abuse disorders, interventions immediately after a first run, and the relationship of race and gender to running away.

The report also identified three common themes behind the reasons youth run away: staying connected with biological family; reaching out to caseworkers, caregivers and other professionals in an effort to recreate family; and youths' struggle for autonomy and drive for normalcy.

"This is not a 'one-size-fits-all' problem," said Malia Arnett, CEO of ChildLink, a Chicago-based organization that serves approximately 200 youth ranging in age from birth to 21 years old.

"This report helps alter common assumptions about the runaway population. As this report illustrates, most youth who run away are more dangerous to themselves than others."

Mark Courtney, director of Chapin Hall and co-principal investigator for the study, said the report will help DCFS and the child welfare community to strengthen existing programs and develop new approaches for the runaway population in Illinois.

"Our findings demonstrate the need to create opportunities for foster youth to engage in constructive ways with their peers, connect with caring adults, and for child welfare authorities to treat any run as a serious cause for concern," said Courtney.

- 30 -

Diane Jackson
Illinois Department of Children and Family Services


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