This article is online-only content from the Spring 2009 issue of SSA Magazine.

Rilya Wilson probably wasn't a runaway. Just four years old when she disappeared from a foster care home in Miami in 2001, she was never found, and her caretaker was later charged with her murder. The case made national headlines, however, bringing attention to the issue of youth who run away from child protective services, estimated to be from a quarter to three-quarters of the adolescents in foster care.

To better understand runaway patterns and why youth in care run, SSA Assistant Professor Gina Miranda Samuels was part of a team that authored an influential 2005 working paper from Chapin Hall on the topic. In this issue's wide-ranging Conversation, Samuels talks with Erwin McEwen, the director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and an SSA alum, about how child protective services can best keep kids from running away, the emotional needs of foster care youth, changing the system, and more.

Samuels: After our study, I was aware of some programs that resulted from the findings. I know you had a lot to do with that and were part of the DCFS initiative looking at issues of running away. I'm interested in how your team is thinking about runaways at this point.

I think in Illinois we have a real strong system of tracking our children. The biggest change is the creation of our child location unit. They take all the information [from where the child is living] if the youth is a runaway, and they have a policy to contact the National Center for Exploited and Missing Children, notify the local police, and make sure that all the I's are dotted and all the T's are crossed. From that, we started to see more about the kids who leave care and come back.

Samuels: In our study, the more typical pattern of runaways is what you're describing. They're cycling in and out; they're running back to families, running home to mom, there's a birthday party going on this weekend they don't want to miss, that sort of thing. Some young people would call in to caseworkers, knowing exactly when their 14-day bed hold [to keep their spot at the DCFS placement] was up and would come back on that 13th day.

McEwen: And so our challenge is trying to figure out what are they running from or what are they running to. We started four intensive stabilization centers that were for children who have had a number of entries and exits at our emergency shelter. They made up over 60 percent of the placement events at the shelter, but only 20 percent of the children served. The [stabilization] centers track the kids no matter where they went. So if they ran to mom's house, then you need to talk with the mom, establish rapport. That represented a shift in thinking for the child welfare community. The centers were really targeted toward older adolescents, 16 to 20. They cost a lot, and they impacted the rules.

We opened four centers, and only two remain. In the beginning, staff responsible for placing children would not do these referrals, but now, interestingly enough, they are saying, "We need more stabilization centers in the downstate communities. You need to re-establish a stabilization center for the girls in Cook County."

Samuels: In the qualitative part of our study we also challenged what the average person thinks of as a runaway-the kid who takes off for a month or a year and they're living on the street. That sort of prototype was the smallest group represented. They were mostly girls, and they were often running away with older guys. But more often, kids were running to friends because they didn't have family, hanging out with peers from the neighborhood. Are the models that we're using flexible enough to bend and twist around these different types of kids?

McEwen: That's the area we struggle with. What we saw with the girls' stabilization center is that, unlike the boys, they didn't cycle. For the younger girls, it's really dangerous. The fact is that the children who are going to run are our most vulnerable children. They're really open to exploitation, sexual exploitation, gang exploitation. Sometimes people think of kids in gangs as these menacing figures. But our kids in gangs, a lot of times they're the kid that the gang makes do stuff. They're the drug carriers, the drug sellers and that sort of thing.

Samuels: They're the ones who end up in trouble and paying for that.

McEwen: Exactly. As I've read more about this population, I don't believe we have the right approach, particularly addressing the needs of young girls who have been involved in the sex exploitation trades. There's an organization called GEMS in New York, they use a model similar to drug addiction treatment. When you hear about sex exploitation, we think of this violent, forced, coerced activity. But many of these girls actually have strong feelings for these guys and what they feel are real substantive, emotional relationships. And I don't think we have programs to address that in Illinois today.

Samuels: To me, it seems somewhat connected to what I've written about on ambiguous loss among youth in the system. It doesn't start when they run away. For some kids, there are relational experiences that create such a need that they're willing to be involved in dangerous behaviors for an emotional connection. Some access it by going home to a biological family, and some by running to friends or hanging out with people where they feel they're accepted, even when it's someone exploiting them.

McEwen: When I read your article, I really started to think about the implications and whether you can find something remotely close to it in our practice paradigm. And it's not there. Say a youth is in foster care and runs away. And then finally somehow we get her back and we send her to a residential placement. And that makes things rough, so she gets placed again someplace else. The one relationship that will sustain itself across all these system boundaries is with these guys who are exploiting them.

Samuels: Right. That relationship is not contingent on their [DCFS] family placement.

McEwen: That's right. A lot of these relationships they have with these guys are three, four, five years old. So as we in the system were trying to figure out legal permanencies and adoptive homes and guardianship homes and relative placements, a lot of times that relationship with that guy was their permanency. And the sad part is that for a lot of these young women, that is going to be their permanent relationship. As you read the literature, you find out that even adult females who are currently engaged in the sex trade, a lot of them were introduced at 13 and 14 years old.

Samuels: This is the future that it seems like they're heading toward.

McEwen: And that's a real challenging cycle for the child welfare community to start to try to break. How do we start to develop a program?

Samuels: And what do we do with these other kids, the cyclers? How do we deal with the family context they're growing up in and different problems they encounter?

McEwen: I think that's the group that we can most help. And there are some policy barriers that we're starting to address. We've been working with a group of attorneys and legislators around developing legislation that will restore parental rights. So that if a kid turns 13, 14, 15 years old in the system and the parental rights have been terminated, we need to go back and review whether there is anything those parents can offer these children.

Samuels: Not necessarily that they're going to go back and live with that family. But there are a lot of roles that same family can play.

McEwen: It's about family reconnection, family navigation. Sometimes the caseworker would look the other way when they know the kid went home and they know he'll be back. But when parental rights are terminated, we have a policy that prevents us from allowing the family from doing that. We're interested in finding a type of policy or legislation where we can say, this kid is seeing his family, and we checked out mom and we've checked out the safety issues and so we don't have to look away. We can help a kid learn to navigate and negotiate their family and the loss and understand why he came into the system.

Samuels: That's really exciting that you say that. A lot of what I keep on arguing in my papers is that we really need a multi-family model, that even when children don't live with somebody it doesn't mean that they don't think about them or that we as system can't figure out how they can have a relationship with those family members. Oftentimes when kids come into the system at five, six years old, their under standing of why they left their family never gets shaped. Then when they get to be 15, 16, it's so clear that nobody has checked in with them about that since they were five. Or they've gotten little pieces here and there, little granules of truth and half-truth or conflicting pieces of information, and you can tell they're trying to sort through that. And that's a horrible way to launch the rest of your life, from this very disjointed experience about why you left this family of origin, who they are, who you are, who you are to them. How do you build a family that's different, better? They don't have this solid sense of even what happened in their own families of origin.

McEwen: And the separation from their families of origin is usually the most traumatic event cited by these kids. They don't cite the abuse or the neglect as the most traumatic event. It's the separation.

~The remainder of the Conversations piece is exclusive web-only~ content

McEwen: The other huge issue is that our kids aren't the only ones out there. There are a lot of kids whose families put them out at 15 or 16 years old. It could be for their sexual orientation. It could be because young ladies get sexually active and that's against the religious morals of the family. Or economics: They can no longer afford to feed this 15-, 16-year-old boy who eats up everything in the house.

I think some studies have put the number of kids involved in the juvenile justice system who have had child maltreatment and childhood traumas as high as 80 percent. But only 16 percent have been really exposed to the child welfare system. And that says that there are a large number of children who have been victims of maltreatment and haven't had any kind of intervention.

I haven't seen it in studies or in research, but it seems to me that when our kids run, they seem to connect with this other group of lost kids who are not in the system but have a similar sort of history with trauma and with family loss. And so that's a part of what we have to start to understand in child welfare: the kids outside of foster care. In Illinois, I think the challenge is that we've too narrowly defined child welfare. We've defined child welfare in terms of child protection.

Samuels: Safety and permanency.

McEwen: And not in terms of child well-being. So if we redefine child welfare in Illinois in a broader sense, you have to understand the roles of community health and prevention programs and after-school programs, teen reach programs. You have to build a continuum of services.

Samuels: If we were to do that, it would also address a whole lot of other populations and problems that we have in the child welfare system. But I think that would really trigger folks to be worried about the child welfare system in everybody's business. What would you say to that?

McEwen: I think we have to think about it. If we equate child welfare to child protection, then folks don't want child protective services in their family. But maybe they do want child welfare when it's "child well-being services" in their families.

We've started to do these family advocacy centers in different parts of the states, aligned with communities where we were taking a lot of children into care. They take two approaches. One was to say, if you had an open DCFS case then the family advocacy centers will help you work with your service plan so we can do unification faster. The second thing we said is that if you had some struggles in your family, with your kids, and you need some help, come to the family advocacy centers.

Samuels: And do people trust that? My first reaction would be to wonder if people are really going to trust that DCFS will come in and think that the agency is spying and making reports on them.

McEwen: We didn't use traditional child welfare providers. We used community agencies, and a lot of them don't have child welfare histories. They have community activist histories, they have family advocacy histories. The role that they're playing is to advocate for the family that's in the child welfare system or to advocate for the child who has these needs. And so you start to move child welfare into a true frame of social work practice.

Child welfare violates probably two of the most critical core values of social work: the client's right to self-determination and the right to informed consent. I've been in child welfare for 25 years. I've never sat down with a client and asked for their consent to do anything, and that's a shame. But at the family advocacy centers, they ask for consent to access case records and they have a voluntary nature: You don't have to get involved with this. It's not a court-ordered service; it's not on anybody's service plan.

We have a family advocacy center in East St. Louis, and they had about 15 or 20 families where DCFS was involved. Then [state] contracts for substance abuse programs were reduced and outreach was by DASA (Division of Alcohol and Substance Abuse) in Southern Illinois and within about six weeks, our center had about 65 families involved. More than half were just voluntary families. In Bloomington, you got the same situation with about half that are voluntary families that are struggling.

Samuels: So what do you think are the barriers to this model? Who or what will be most resistant to that sort of shift in change?

McEwen: The child welfare system is not just DCFS. Every kid has an open case, so the judiciary is represented. Laws can be barriers, so you need the legislature to change laws and provide approval for funding. You have to start to work to try to change the attitudes and perceptions.

Then the other thing is the issues of abuse and neglect. I think it was 1978 or '80, the law changed and required the agency to provide the same response for abuse and neglect. Abuse can sometimes be characterized as intentional harm, whereas neglect is more unintended harm. I think over 70 percent of the cases we deal with are about neglect or risk of harm. So we have to figure out ways to go back and unpack that issue. Because it is unintended harm, it seems like you can address that kind of harm with awareness.

It just struck me it's really shifting the thinking from an environmental approach to an ecological approach of trying to do this work.

Samuels: It's just being a social worker; right?

McEwen: I'm a social worker. It is amazing that it's hard to be a social worker and be the DCFS director.

Samuels: I would imagine. I found it hard to be a social worker when I was a child welfare worker. I found it very difficult. And yet, to me, there couldn't be a better place to be a social worker. But I think philosophically and historically, there have been a lot of tensions and contradictions in terms of how we're trained to work with people and how we're trained to think about families, how we're trained to define problems. Everything [in social work] is interactive and systemic. Social workers operate on the idea that people should have the right to be self-determining.

Yet that's not necessarily how we've constructed, as a society, our child welfare system. And so I think there are natural tensions and contradictions for those of us who are in social work and child welfare. How do we do the work that we've been trained to do faced with laws and policies and conceptions of this population that are the antithesis of everything we've been trained to do?

McEwen: Right. And so it's a very powerful place to be, the DCFS director, to advocate for these things. But you also make yourself vulnerable when you do that. For example, starting to talk about an examination of the Child Care Act and some other legislation that we need to change, we're already getting it when we talk to stakeholders who have a position of power in the existing system.

But we need to see the differential response in Illinois. The family advocacy centers start to move into a family support model in child welfare. We've really been working hard to do that, trying to get into the day care centers and things like that and training parents as leaders so that they have the understanding of how to use these protective factors.

Samuels: To prevent neglect.

McEwen: That's right, that unintentional neglect. I don't want to soften the issue of neglect, because children die from neglect.

Samuels: It's very serious. Right.

McEwen: But it's this unintentional kind that I'm talking about, that is an accumulation of things that doesn't happen instantaneously that I think you can penetrate and impact in huge ways. But another one of the biggest hurdles is the funding construct

Samuels: That's a big challenge, to motivate people in tight economic times to pay attention to well-being. From what I hear when I'm talking with folks, there seems to be something more tangible about safety in terms of how you measure it. Who's going to pay for well-being? How do we measure that? How do we know that what we're doing is really making a difference for well-being? And how do we garner public support for it, seeing it as being as much of an emergency for this child as their literal survival and physical safety?

McEwen: Right. Well, I would say we have that opportunity right now in Illinois. And I really do believe that. I think that we're starting to understand that we do a good job in moving kids to safe situations. But we also see that their mental health needs, their educational needs, all of those things suffer greatly in that approach.