When a single parent goes to prison, they are not the only one to be institutionalized. Many youth are placed into state’s custody when their parents are incarcerated. As Dakotah nears 18 years of age, she asks, can I be arrested for running away at 18?
Dakotah* was placed in foster care when her mom went to prison. She had friends and family who were willing to take her in and felt that it was unfair for her to have to live with strangers. Dakotah lived in four different foster families in the first six months. She ran away to friends or cousins repeatedly, trying to get some semblance of home, family, and her old life back. “My cousins want me here, I have lots of friends I can stay with and I go from house to house. Why should I have to stay with people who don’t care about me at all, when I could stay with my friends who love me and want to support me?”
In each of her foster homes, Dakotah felt unloved and unwanted.
The first house was filthy and infested with bugs. In another, her foster “father” was creepy and invaded her privacy. Since it was impossible to get her caseworker on the phone, she felt it was easier to just run away or start a fight with her foster family so that she could get a new placement. Each time she entered a new home, she felt more lonely and isolated.
Eventually, Dakotah went into hiding. She had been living on a friend’s couch for three months, and her 18th birthday was coming up in six weeks. Dakotah was happy where she was, but she had a problem. “I feel like I really messed up,” she told Dawn*, NRS’ frontline team member aka liner on the other end of the phone call. Dakotah had stopped going to school, wasn’t working, and was constantly afraid of being caught and returned to the chaotic situation she ran from.
“What were you hoping to get out of calling here today?” asked Dawn.
“Well, I guess I just needed to talk. I know I can stay here until I turn 18, but if I go to the doctor or try to go back to school, or if I apply for a job, am I going to get arrested?”
Dawn reassured Dakotah that running away is not a criminal offense. “Unless you were on probation or there are some special circumstances, running away is not a crime. You aren’t going to be put in jail. You have a right to an education, and to medical care. But enrolling yourself in school does come with some risk and you could be returned to foster care.”
Dakotah said that she felt safe with her friend. “It’s good to hear that you have support and that you feel safe,” said Dawn. “We are so sorry to hear that you have been through all of this.” Dawn let Dakotah know that if she wants to reach out to her caseworker, that NRS can facilitate a conference call.
“We are here to support you in any way that we can, but we aren’t here to tell anyone what to do. You are the only person who can make these decisions for yourself, and it is totally understandable that you left a situation where you felt uncomfortable for somewhere you feel safe and supported.”
By the end of the call, Dakotah had decided she was going to try to wait it out at her friend’s house until she turned 18. “Thank you for listening, I think I just needed to talk it out.” Dawn replied, “No problem. If you change your mind or you need anything, don’t hesitate to call back. We can call your caseworker, or help you find any resources that might help,” Dawn said.
The goal of NRS’ front line team member when speaking with a youth is to get as much information as possible, and then work with the youth to help her develop a plan of action that will keep them safe. Dakotah felt trapped as if she were in a prison, like her mother. However, she was able to reach out for help, and develop a plan that would keep her from making her situation worse. She was given resources and options for help and was able to make her own decision on what was best. The reality is that each case NRS receives is unique, and requires a unique response.
Dakotah, and youth like her, are always welcome to contact NRS again if they need help.
*Names are changed.