Understanding a Child’s Trajectory through Foster Care Pre- and Post-AWOL

This presentation utilizes data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), The National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS), and the National Youth in Transition Database (NYTD) to develop an understanding of a child’s trajectory through foster care both before and after an elopement from out-of-home placement, colloquially referred to as AWOL. Children who AWOL are potentially exposed to dangers including high-risk sexual activity, substance abuse, criminal activity, untreated psychiatric illness, and physical violence. Despite the urgency, AWOL remains a poorly understand phenomenon. This presentation seeks to deepen our collective understanding.

The study of AWOL can be challenging for several reasons, including access to the population in question and variations in the definition of AWOL; some facilities refer to any absence (e.g., the failure to return after a home pass) as an AWOL, and others adopt more narrow criteria. The timing and duration of AWOL events is more meaningfully understood, particularly using federal foster care data, enabling at least a partial examination of the conditions in which children come to child welfare prior to an eventual AWOL and what happens in its aftermath.

While the factors that predict AWOL are reasonably well explored—including through my workshop at the Association of Children’s Residential & Community Services (ACRC) Conference in 2021—but are clearly outlined here. The impact of an AWOL on a child’s trajectory in foster care is less meaningfully explored in prior scholarship. One study explores the relationship between AWOL and discharge, and another finds that foster youth with AWOL histories were significantly more likely to have subsequent contact with the criminal justice system than those without AWOL histories. The findings of the latter study in particular indicate that the impact of an AWOL event on a child warrants further attention.

The analysis of federal data enables an understanding of a child’s long-term trajectory through the child welfare system, from maltreatment report through an eventual transition, telling us a great deal about existing outcomes for children as related to AWOL.


Stephen Oby, Ph.D., LCSW

Assistant Professor , Salisbury University

Email: sjoby@salisbury.edu