Unfortunately, that is a question with no straight answers.
Can You Leave Foster Care? Can You Get Into Trouble for Running Away?
Foster care can be a stressful situation for youth. They are taken from family, possibly moved out of their school, might not be able to see their friends anymore. It’s hard for a young person to experience all that upheaval while potentially losing their support system.
So it’s not surprising that youth think about running away from their foster home; many of them leave to go see friends or family that they lost contact with after being placed in foster care. But can a young person leave foster care without getting into trouble?
It’s difficult to predict what the consequences of running away from foster care would be for a particular youth due to the varying procedures of child welfare systems from state to state. However, NRS can help navigate these questions between a youth and a caseworker through a conference call. NRS can be a youth advocate between a youth and a case worker or foster care placement and ensure concerns are heard and help explore the options available. In the simplest of answers, a youth is considered a minor until they turn 18 and that means they must have a legal guardian or in this case, a foster parent.
Once they turn 18, some foster children ‘age out of the system’ and become their own guardians. But in some states, a youth can opt to stay in foster care until they are 21 years old. An example of this would be here in Illinois; if a youth remains involved with DCFS until they are 21, they might be eligible to receive financial assistance for college.
Back to the original question: Can a youth leave foster care? And the simplest answer is ‘no.’
Because remember, if a youth is under 18, they are considered to be a minor and therefore, can’t make legal decisions for themselves. In many states, if a youth does run away it is considered a status offense (something is illegal because the person is a minor); other status offenses include curfew and truancy.
If a youth comes into contact with police, the caseworker is usually contacted and will determine where the youth will be placed. This could be back to where the youth ran from or another placement option. Outcomes can be different for each youth and situation. If a youth is staying with someone, a person over 18 could be charged with harboring a minor or runaway; this is often considered to be illegal and the potential charges vary from state to state but often falls under a misdemeanor offense.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a question that has one answer because everyone’s story is different. Some youth leave foster care because of safety issues. Some leave because they miss their friends or family.
But one thing that is certain is that no matter the reason, a youth can always call 1-800-RUNAWAY at the National Runaway Safeline to talk about what’s going on. There will always be someone here to listen, here to help.
Additional resources are available to youth in foster care that are 18-21 through The John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program (CFCIP) which offers assistance to help current and former foster care youths achieve self-sufficiency. Activities and programs include, but are not limited to, help with education, employment, financial management, housing, emotional support and assured connections to caring adults for older youth in foster care. The program is intended to serve youth who are likely to remain in foster care until age 18, youth who, after attaining 16 years of age, have left foster care for kinship guardianship or adoption, and young adults ages 18-21 who have “aged out” of the foster care system. – ACF.HHS.gov