There are several ways in which an institution—and the child care worker within it—can handle a runaway in a nondestructive and hopefully growth-producing way. Most important is to consider why a child runs away, and this can always be done no matter how large the institution and no matter how many other problems are related to the incident. In many ways a child’s running away can be traced to individual factors in his life situation and to his own mode of functioning. Among a group of children running away, for example, one may leave because he is worried about his family and wants to track it down; another may have been poorly accepted in the ward group and joins the "escape" in order to become "one of the boys"; another may have a poorly developed sense of reality and has simply wandered off with the others; still another may feel that his life in the institution is restricted and meaningless and is seeking more adventure.

Related to the various reasons for running away are the ways of preventing it, the ways of avoiding as much as possible the type of climate and situations which make a child want to leave. All the previously cited examples suggest means of prevention. Had the staff been sensitive to the feelings of the boy who was trying to find his family? Had the workers been able to pick up any cues from him that he was worried about them, and did they pass them on to the social workers? Had the workers been sensitive to the second child’s feelings of exclusion and been devising and managing group situations so as to help him find greater acceptance? Was the child who wandered off the victim of a poor pattern of supervision so that his absence was not even noted for a while? And, finally—and this instance is most directly related to the work of the child care staff—had a consistent effort been made to inject variety, interest, and the opportunity to develop new skills into the on-unit program? This is not to say by any means that the child care worker can prevent all runaways. But the alert worker holds some elements of prevention in his grasp, even though many factors in the case of an individual child are beyond his control, resting in the wider social milieu and in the intrapsychic problems of the child.

An occasional runaway from an institution probably reflects a variety of difficulties converging in the experience of the child involved; a chronic rash of runaways and the staff’s preoccupation with their management usually mean that there are unresolved tensions in the children’s environment which should be investigated. For example, the element of freedom may be involved if there is a frequency of runaways. Do the children who are able to handle it have sufficient freedom to move about on their own? Conversely, for the children who need more structure in their environment are there boundaries and guidelines so that they do not wander off in confusion? Are there available spaces in the institution both for the children to be alone and for them to participate in vigorous activity?

In addition to his role in preventing runaways, the child care worker frequently is involved in handling the returned child. The child care worker can use his knowledge of and his interest in the individual child to help shed light on the reasons for the child’s departure by passing on useful information to supervisory and other clinical staff. It would be hoped that he would talk with the child about the reasons for his running away and help him see what everyone involved could do to improve the situation. Often the worker is responsible for the child’s care on his return, helping him shower, getting him clean clothing, food, etc. Although he may not have permission or resources to offer abundant comforts, he is able to administer what he does in a benign and sympathetic way. If other staff have decided on a plan for handling the returnee that the worker does not agree with—for example, if he feels that it is too severe—while he may not be able to alter it, he can still take a warm stance toward the returning child without undermining the policies. He may say, "Gee, I’m sorry you got yourself in such a jam" or, "Things must have been making you feel pretty bad for you to want to leave like that, and I’m glad you’re safe and sound." He would not say, "You should have stayed away for all the use we have for you or, "If I had my way, you wouldn’t have to be in the isolation room at all."

If punishment is administered, it would be hoped that it is logical and properly timed. Overlong isolation, long assignments of meaningless work, or deprivation of all activities not only increase a child’s feeling of hostility toward and rejection of the institution and its staff, but also draw special attention to him as an outcast. These factors make it even more difficult for him to resume a normal and productive course of life in the institutional program and to have positive relationships with the other children. All of this, of course, can increase his sense of hopelessness and futility and thus increase the probability that he may again leave the grounds. On the other hand, for some children it makes sense that although they will ultimately be allowed to resume their privileges, perhaps they should not be taken on the next off-grounds trip. Individualization, of course, is the prime consideration in managing the runaway. For the severely disturbed child who has just wandered off or even for the occasional nonverbal child who is a real escape artist, it is ridiculous to think in terms of isolation to teach him not to do it again.


Foster, G. W.; VanderVen, K.; Kroner, E. R.; Carbonara, N. T. and Cohen, G. M.(1981) Child Care Work with Emotionally Disturbed Children. US: University of Pittsburgh Press. pp 149-152