Children's Voice Oct/Nov 2005

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By Shay Bilchik,
President and CEO, CWLA


At age 8, after being reprimanded for something that now escapes my memory, I ran away from home. I wanted to show my parents I wasn't going to put up with being disciplined and would teach them a lesson about treating me so poorly--I was just going to leave them. Hasta la vista baby! Boy, oh boy, would they be sorry! I left at 4:00 pm, turned the corner, and sat on a grassy hill out of their sight, 150 yards from my house. I sat for two hours until I got hungry. It was then I headed home and announced I had run away but had decided to return.

The truth is, I did not have a lot to run from, but much to return to, which is why I recovered so quickly from my momentary impulse. Unfortunately, the lives of children in the child welfare system are not always so positively defined. It's not uncommon for children in care to surmise they have nothing to lose and to run from care--often more than once--as you will read in "Children Missing from Care" in this issue of Children's Voice. Some turn on their heels when they reach the corner and return. But many keep going, increasing their vulnerability and their chances for encountering numerous dangers.

A recent study by the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago found that youth who run from care are typically ages 12-18. While most youth this age are engaged in school, sports, and social activities with friends, teens in care are often coping with weightier issues, such as when they will move to another placement and when they might return home, even if that home is not necessarily safe. Is it any wonder youth in care may feel they have too much to run to on the outside--relatives, siblings, friends, and "home"--and not enough stability and love to comfortably remain in their placement?

Those of us in the child welfare field need to better address this issue and others facing the children in our care by honing our listening skills. In researching the issue of children missing from care, CWLA discovered that, on average, caseworkers spend 15 minutes with runaway youth after they are found, with no psychological or social support provided. Child welfare agencies must devote more time to the recovery process and respond like concerned parents, attempting to understand a young person's reasons for running and seeing that the child accesses appropriate services.

Perhaps no one can better attest to the power of listening than a former youth in care. Mary Lee is President of CWLA's National Foster Youth Advisory Council, and her firsthand account of living in foster care is also featured in this issue of the Voice. After years of bouncing around the system, a judge finally asked her what she wanted out of life. She said she wanted a family of her own. Soon thereafter, her case manager adopted her, a week before her 18th birthday. Because of this judge's particular attentiveness, Mary now views foster care as an "opportunity rather than a punishment."

Another contributor to this issue, Laura Greer, tells us about her experiences volunteering after school to help children in foster care. In Laura's case, she wasn't the one seeking an ear, but the one lending an ear. Spending countless hours listening to and talking with youth of all ages in need, Laura discovered children in foster care had many questions about how the system worked, but there were no materials available to answer their questions. In true entrepreneurial style, Laura wrote What's Happening? A Guide for Kids Entering Foster Care, a question-and-answer book about foster care for foster children, now distributed nationally by CWLA.

These are wonderful examples of how important it is to take a moment to turn down the noise in our daily routines--including the chatter of all the adults in the child welfare system--and tune into what kids have to say. This will sharpen our view of those within our charge and uncover potentially life-altering or life-saving information, such as discovering a child's desire to be adopted, or a teen's thoughts about running from care.

I now understand my own run from home was short-lived because life at home afforded too many opportunities not to return. Although the child welfare system is not the same as a child's birth home, listening to and working with our children in care will allow us to chart a course that serves them well and creates new opportunities. Doing so will also help avert any intentions they have of heading for the corner.

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