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Youth who run away and are disengaged in programming?

2011

I am looking for advice on how to address the needs of two youth who are living at the residential facility that I am working in. These youth repeatedly run away from the facility, and engage in risky behavior in the community. How can group home staff ensure that these youth remain safe, decrease occurrences of youth running away, and engage youth in programming and services? I am seeking advice on how to engage youth within a group home setting, and through community outreach.
 
Thank you.

Anonymous
...

Is it too simplistic to say that the answer is to make staying in and engaging with staff more fun and exciting and interesting and desirable than going out?  "Programming and services" sounds a little clinical and not too attractive to me.  Play games, have a laugh, have fun, laugh again, avoid being critical and demanding, laugh a lot, have a mug of hot chocolate or a cold drink (even when they've been "bad"), laugh some more, do it all again.  Then, when they know you are really OK, you can talk to them about running away and they just might listen.
 
Don't try to stop them running away, try to make them want to stay.
 
Ni Holmes
Scotland
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An interesting dilemma; raises lots of questions? Are they running away from something, or to something? You've identified them as youth, I wonder how old they are? Is it possible that this is an expression of an increasing desire for autonomy and independence? Risk taking behaviors? (i.e. Substance use, sexual activity?) Again maybe some element of experimentation, maybe some result of modeling from an earlier time in their lives. Do they run away together? Is this some effort to work out /understand their relationship? Does one go to keep the other safe? Does one go because they feel more brave/secure/stimulated in the company of the other? What is the response they receive upon return? And how does this impact their desire to run away again? Is it possible that they think the only way/best way to maintain their place with you is to run away demonstrating a need to be taken care of?
 
Thanks for the question, hope this is of some help,
 
Michael Wattie
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Hi there
Having worked specifically with running-behaviours in youth for about a year, I think that a key piece is to build on relationships - either with peers or a staff person. Our program had particular "reconnect work" for youth who disengaged from the program (treatment), as well as the loss of "points" they could earn to receive their allowance. I'm not sure what type of structure your program has, though. Do the youth have the opportunity to contribute to the types of activities and programming? asking for their input and planning what sorts of activities they want to do may help. Another idea would be to have a "planned AWOL" - in which they are permitted to leave with a staff for a specific length of time (these can be earned by not running, as well). Also, what type of safety planning do you do with the youth and what are their consequences for running and engaging in risky behaviour? We also would follow the youth for as long as possible in the community (ie, until they get on the bus or you lose sight of them).
 
I hope these ideas can help!
 
Cheers
Heather Forsey
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My first thought is....are they running from something or to something? Knowing that may help with your intervention and assist in assessing their needs. Is one the leader and the other merely following?
Their needs will most likely differ, but in my experience, if there is a focus on building a relationship with the kids in your care, they are less likely to run, more likely to grow and heal, and more invested in the program.
 
Engaging youth within a "group home setting" should be no different than any other setting....establishing trust, consistency, openness, providing a safe environment, and listening to what they have to say. Have you asked them why they continue to run away? Have you asked them what they need to be more engaged in the program? What are their interests and how can you and your staff members help them focus on those vs running?
 
Jean Dickson
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Being strength-based and focusing on what they are doing 'right' rather then what they are doing wrong.  Build protective and resiliency factors so while 'away' they are more likely to be safe. Be open to hearing their perspective on 'running away' both the good and the bad.  Maybe if you knew where they were running to and why (what need is being met) you could find another way to fulfil it at program.  On another note ownership of a program is key, give them a voice in the proram and provide immediate examples of how their voice has made an impact on the program.
  
Just a few things that we find works at our youth drop-in, some you are probably already doing but thought I'd mention anyways.
  
Take care
 
Nicole
  
" if you want to get the best out of someone then you first need to see it in them"
...
 
I really like Ni's framework of not trying to stop kids from running but mainly focus on making them want to stay in the program. Additionally this question raises a point that has always been a passion of mine in CYC work.

When a young person runs away from a program they often put themselves in potentially dangerous situations or engage in activities that were concerning for them before they came into placement. Yet, in most cases when they return to the program they are greeted by workers who may be upset with them because they left, they face "lectures" about program rules, and are given (often disproportional and unconnected) consequences as "restriction" for running. Many programs even take their shoes and clothes and have them walk around in pajamas for a while.  
 
Yikes, the child most likely came to the program because they often struggle to find healthy coping skills and make good decisions. Then they make a good decision to return to relative safety and they are greeted with stern adults and consequences. It has always been a process that seems completely insane to me. So, some things to consider:
 
• Was the decision to leave and run from the program really a "bad decision"?? When I was Director of the adolescent girls program some years ago I established a system that if a girl "awol'ed" (ugh! what a term for a treatment center) and left us a letter explaining why she left it was automatically half the structured program consequence. This helped her and all the staff focus less on the fact that she left and more on the real issue for growth...WHY she left. Did I receive letters that said (smugly) "I am going awol. I am bored. I am going to party with my friends. Be back Monday. Oh, and remember, half my consequence"? Yes! And I honored the agreement on consequences. But, those instances virtually disappeared as the girls realized we were serious about wanting to know why they left as the priority and help them with it. We also received letters saying "I left because I was so angry I was going to hurt that other girl or staff member", "I left because I think I need a substance abuse program and my social worker isn't hearing me", I left because they are bullying me and staff don't stop them", I left because my stepfather is getting out of jail and I am afraid he might hurt my little sister", etc. Those are the "treatment" issues to focus on and, in fact, for the most part these reasons to leave are relatively healthy and the kid should have been acknowledged for relatively good judgment before processing other more "program following" options.
 
• I never got to the point of being able to have the courage to actually throw a party with special snacks when a kid returned from danger ( I would do that if I had it to do over, despite the predicted outcry from workers and others who would insist I had lost my mind!) but I did focus in on making the girl feel as welcomed and nurtured as possible and made special efforts to focus in on more explanation of what was in the letter. In community meetings we would make special mention of being happy the girl was back with us and I would meet with each girl individually to welcome her back. 
 
• One other part of the plan was that if a girl was "awol" and called us while she was away to tell us she was safe, and gave some update on her situation, we would again half the consequence.
 
So, preventing kids from running from programs is certainly about better ways to engage and reach them in the program, but also about focusing in on reminding them they are cared for, welcomed there, and maybe even "rewarded" at the most vulnerable and crucial point when they actually "come back".

Food for thought for creative CYC practice!
 
Frank Delano
New York, NY
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Hi
 
This question sounds very interesting and I'm sure with lots of different responses. I've worked in a Facility for awaiting trial youth and running away was part and parcel of the work. However, experience has also taught me that, no matter the amount of planning you put into programs as well as getting their input some of the youngsters will still find a way to run away. In most cases it is purely that they want to go home which is also influenced by the fact that parents are not in a position to visit; in other instances it is influence due to the nature of the case they are involved in; and it might even be that they are "afraid" of certain staff members.

I'm sure when asking these youth they will most probably come up with a myriad of reasons why they run away. Yes the question should also be asked what they running away from, or what are they running to. One bit of advice, never view running away as something personal that the youth have against you as staff member. Any person whose movements are restricted will find ways to get away from such circumstances.
 
Charles Harris
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Thanks everyone for your great replies. To answer a few questions... Mike, I believe that they are both running away from something, and to something.

They are involuntary clients, and have stated that they do not wish to live in our facility. They want to be at home with their families. Living with their families would not be possible. I believe that they are running to the community, because they have made connections and feel a since of belonging to the folks they have met. Unfortunately these are not relationships that we can support. To answer your other questions, sometimes they run together, sometimes they go independent from one another. When they return to the house, we first search them to ensure that they do not have any contraband material (drugs, weapons, etc). They are then welcomed back and offered some food. It is normally late, and they go to bed. Heather, can you tell me more about the "reconnect work" that you are doing. Currently, our safety planning occurs through informal discussions. Other risk reduction strategies that have been implemented include "safety cards" this is a card that the youth can carry in their wallet. It lists important phone numbers and safety tips. Do you have any other ideas for safety planning? Heather, you discussed a point system that affects allowance. Unfortunately allowance is not an effective motivator for these youth. They are able to meet these needs in the community. They tell us that people "buy" them things. Can you suggest any other program initiatives?  
 
Sarah Davison
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