Young people in the dependency and juvenile justice systems often have learned at an early age how to take care of their own needs. It is not uncommon for them to leave their placement without approval, especially in congregate care situations, for a few hours or a few days. When they choose to leave a placement they have valid reasons, for example:
- they don't feel safe in the placement
- they feel stressed, frustrated, or bored in the placement
- they want to visit their family, see friends, or simply enjoy themselves
- they want to experience "just being a kid"
- they want to avoid hearing bad news about family reunification
- they want to feel in control of their situation
- they just need a break
Often the youth feels that leaving placement is the only way they can get what they want, and unfortunately that is sometimes true. In fact, leaving their approved placement to take care of their needs demonstrates strength and resilience. Sometimes when they leave they are staying with family members or close family friends who may later become their official caregivers. At the same time, some young people are more vulnerable to harm, such as CSEC, and contact with the Juvenile Justice system when they are leave an approved placement.
A youth may be considered to be in an unstable placement, and at risk of leaving if they:
- have had multiple placements in the past few months.
- are sleeping in different places each week.
- have a pattern of leaving placements.
- have recently been given notice of removal by the caregiver.
- are placed in congregate care and have expressed frustration or that their needs are not being met.
- are living on their own or in an unapproved placement.
Establishing a trusting and judgement-free relationship begins long before the youth leaves their placement. Talking honestly about the youth's concerns and reasons for wanting to leave enables you as their CASA to advocate with the placement and care team to address the youth's needs.
If you believe your youth is at risk of leaving their approved placement, it can be helpful to initiate a conversation to offer them support and comfort. You can strategize with your Advocacy Supervisor about safety related questions that are specific to your youth's situation. Below are some general questions you can ask to help them think through options and consequences of leaving:
- what options do you have when you feel that your needs are not being met at home / at the group care facility?
- what would need to change for you to feel like you can stay?
- do you have a plan?
- if you felt like you had to leave, how will you stay safe?
- who can you trust to help you if decide to leave and end up in trouble?
- what will happen when you return? Where will you go?
- what are your hopes and goals for the next few weeks and months?
When a youth is away from their placement, they continue to need support and advocacy.
Behind the Scenes:
- Discuss the situation with your Advocacy Supervisor.
- Discuss your concerns with the social worker and attorney.
- Advocate for your youth to have their needs met if/when they return to the placement, or go to a new placement.
- Ask if there are close or extended family members that might be contacted to learn where the youth is staying. Support with calls to extended family members if appropriate.
With your youth:
- Try to establish a line of communication via phone, email, or text.
- Consistently express that you believe in them and are there for them.
- Listen to and validate what your youth shares about their situation.
- Ask open-ended and solutions-oriented questions about safety (see "Appropriate Language" section below).
- Be aware of signs of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC)
- If the youth is in imminent danger, call 911 and/or report it to Child Protective Services (CPS) at (858) 514-6995.
- Do not reprimand or judge the youth for leaving their placement.
- Do not act as an emergency responder, which is the role of the social worker, probation officer, or law enforcement.
- Do not transport youth.
- Do not bring the youth to your home or place of business. It may be tempting to ensure they are safe by letting them stay with you, but this is absolutely not allowed by both state law and National CASA rules. There are always other safe places for your youth to go.
If you are able to be in contact with a youth who has left their approved placement, here are some questions that can help to reduce the risk of harm, support ongoing communication, and potentially encourage their return to placement. Please note, these are not questions you should “quiz” your youth about, but can serve as a guide to having a productive conversation.
- Are you safe?
- How do you know you are safe?
- What is going well for you?
- Are you comfortable reaching out to your social worker or attorney for help?
- What do you like about being away from your placement?
- Are you staying in the same place, or moving around?
- What are you worried about?
- Who can you contact if you feel unsafe? Or need support?
- How are you paying for what you need?
- Are you staying with friends? Are there adults there?
- Are you in touch with your family? Can I help you connect with other community supports?
- Are you going to school?
- May I tell your social worker the information you’re sharing with me?
- If taking medications, do you need help getting a refill?
- What support do you need from the adults on your team?
- What would have to change for you to feel ready to return to your placement?
- How can I support you?
If you are able to have a conversation with your youth, the priority is expressing support and confidence in their ability to make good choices, and keeping the line of communication open. You are not expected to have all the answers, or to provide solutions. Be honest with your youth about what you can and can't do.
Family Urgent Response System (FURS): A 24/7 team can support crisis placement situations.
National Runaway Safeline: This is an excellent resource for youth on the run, or contemplating running away, and the adults who care about them. Has training materials, a 24 hour hotline and will provide a free bus ticket for anywhere in the US for runaways (to be used if they are out of the county and need to return).
Polinsky Children's Center: A 24/7 emergency detention facility for dependent youth who do not have an active placement order.
Storefront Youth Shelter: Youth Emergency Shelter is the only emergency night shelter in the county for homeless and runaway youth. They provide shelter and support services for children and teens, ages 12 to 17, who don't have a safe place to live or are victims of physical or sexual abuse, neglect or exploitation.
211: Either dial 2-1-1- or click on the link to speak to a resource specialist who can identify local shelters, medical providers, and resources.