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When Teens in Foster Care Run Away from Home

Recently, in a Facebook group for foster parents, there was a post about teens and running away.

I have a 17 year old foster daughter who runs away almost once a month, and I have a question for parents of teens who run away: How many times do you let them run away before they can't come back anymore? I don't want my biological daughter to think she can do whatever she wants because I keep letting my foster daughter come home after she runs away.

I scrolled down to the comments section, scared of what I would find, and sure enough, the comments were full of statements advocating for disruption.

After the first time, they have to go! One and done!

I wouldn't put up with that.

You have to do what's best for YOUR kid!

One insensitive ass person even posted this GIF in response.

So many foster parents who have pledged to shelter and advocate for vulnerable kids from hard places were encouraging this woman to give up on this child, to put limits and conditions on her love and support of this child.

I thought of my son, who has run away from our home many times, out of anger and frustration, or just to blow of steam, to try to outrun the demons that years of trauma has saddled him with, sprinting or biking off into the dark night with both a backpack and a chip on his shoulder. I thought of the times we have had to call the police to report him missing as per foster agency requirements (a terrifying requirement when your child is Black), of sitting by the window with tears blurring my vision, sending a text message every hour. Please come home. We love you. Be careful.

In those moments I thought only of the many, many ways that harm could come to him, out there on the road. A car turning too fast as he's biking without a helmet, hitting his tall body square on and knocking him onto the impassive road, silencing that beautiful mind with its dark storm of swirling thoughts forever. A seemingly friendly face in the grocery store where he's hiding out to charge his phone, the face of a trafficker, Come sit in my truck, it sounds like your mom sucks, you should come with me to this party. The trunk slamming closed over his body, his face going up on missing posters at that same grocery store. One of many, many faces. A collage of the disappeared.

Becoming dehydrated in the hot summer night. Becoming frostbitten in the freezing winter night when he left without a real coat on because coats are puffy and uncool.

The most terrifying scenario and the one that causes a catch in my throat even now, to think of it: his toes hanging over the edge of an overpass, eyes looking down at the headlights streaming by so far below. That impulsive streak that makes him creative and hilarious and who he is turning on him and becoming the deadly force that makes him take his darkest thoughts a step further, over the edge. A permanent solution to the temporary unrest of his soul.

Or even worse (yes, I'm a mom with anxiety so I can come up with an even worse), the police officer, the one I was forced by stupid red tape rules to call, does actually find him, and gets spooked by his dark brown skin shining in the darkness or by their own deep rooted racism and draws their gun and pulls the trigger.

All I have ever wanted in those late afternoon and early evening and late night moments of waiting by the window and by the phone, was to have my son home again. It would never have occurred to me when he finally, FINALLY shuffled in through the door to bar that door to him. I always innately knew that it was never about being defiant or being angry at me or avoiding whatever consequence served as the catalyst for him running away.

It was always about trying to run faster than the demons trying to catch up with him.

Teens in foster care who act out or run away are asking questions with their actions, the questions that they cannot speak with words for fear of getting the answers they fear the most: Do you really love me? Will you really keep me? Can you love the real me, even though others have shown through their hurtful words or physical hurts, that I am not worthy of love?

Can I trust you? It's their most important question and although they almost never speak it out loud they ask it in a thousand ways, with all of their hearts.

Our answer to all of those questions will always be a resounding YES. When I think about what I would have missed if I had given up on our biggest brother after that first time running away, or after the third time or sixth time...I'm so glad that I kept the light on and the door open for him.

Unconditional love is a choice, and kids in foster care need parents who will keep making that choice again and again, every day.

To our oldest child: Every day in every way, we choose you. No matter what, we choose you.

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