Examining the Link: Foster Care Runaway Episodes and Human Trafficking

Publication Date: November 4, 2020
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Children and youth who run from foster care placements are a growing concern among policymakers and practitioners. A large number of youth in foster care run away from their placement at least once, and many do multiple times. Running from care is associated with a range of serious negative consequences, including human trafficking victimization.

In 2016, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) funded the Domestic Human Trafficking and the Child Welfare Population project to identify and better assist children and youth served by its programs who are victims of, or are at risk of, domestic human trafficking. As part of this effort, a report to Congress, The Child Welfare System Response to Sex Trafficking of Children, addressed the relationship between running away from foster care and sex trafficking. This brief summarizes and builds upon this report to Congress.


This brief describes current understanding of running away from foster care and its relationship to the risk of sex trafficking. This includes a discussion of the number of youth who run from foster care, factors that place youth at risk of running from care, and the evidence around running from care and sex trafficking victimization. Where applicable, the link between running from care and labor trafficking is discussed. This brief concludes with a discussion of promising efforts to reduce runaway behavior.

Key Findings and Highlights

  • Youth in foster care run away more frequently than those in the general population, and many run multiple times. Age, sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity, behavioral health issues, and foster care experiences may influence runaway behavior. Motivations for running can include factors that “push” youth to run from foster care, or “pull” them to run to something. 
  • Runaway behavior is associated with a range of adverse consequences, including sex trafficking victimization. A growing body of research indicates that youth who run from foster care are more likely than other youth in foster care to have experienced sex trafficking, and that trafficking experiences may occur during runaway episodes. Runaway behavior may also be associated with labor trafficking experiences, although much less information is available.
  • Consistent with the best available evidence, child welfare agencies are taking steps to reduce runaway behaviors, to collaborate with law enforcement and other service providers to locate runaway children and youth, and to assess risks for sex trafficking after children and youth return from runaway episodes.
  • Efforts to prevent and respond to runaway behavior represent an important opportunity to prevent sex trafficking and support children and youth who have experienced sex trafficking.


Data for this brief come from (1) a 2019 report to Congress, The Child Welfare System Response to Sex Trafficking of Children; and (2) a literature review conducted in May 2020.


Latzman, N. E., & Gibbs, D. (2020). Examining the link: Foster care runaway episodes and human trafficking. OPRE Report No. 2020-143. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


Administration for Children and Families
Children’s Bureau
Office of Planning, Research, & Evaluation
Sex Trafficking:
As defined by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, sex trafficking is a commercial sex act induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age.
Labor Trafficking:
As defined by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, labor trafficking consists of the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.
Foster Care:
Out-of-home placements under the supervision of child welfare agencies, including family foster care settings (nonrelative foster care, relative foster care, or pre-adoptive homes) in addition to group and residential care or other placements such as visitation or a short-term hospital stay.