“If they’re not in a situation where they’re being watched and properly guided, literally anything can happen,” Dan Bittner, HHS deputy regional inspector general and one of the report’s authors, said in a statement. interview. “And it happens.”
The Administration for Children and Families, a department of HHS that oversees the nation’s foster care system, said in a statement Monday that information from the report “will help inform our efforts to provide technical assistance to states and tribes to improve performance”.
But the report’s findings come with important caveats, largely due to the uneven quality of data between states and within states, according to Mark E. Courtney, professor of social work at the University of Chicago. , whose research includes studies of policies and services for youth in transition to adulthood. host family.
The report shows that a significant number of young people in foster care who go missing are teenagers and young adults over the age of 18 who live in states where they can stay in foster care until they are 21. years – groups, according to Courtney, are known to go missing not because they were abducted, but because they were “absent without permission”.
“The fact that our data systems have not adapted to not be clear that they are missing because they are really refusing service” is a problem, he added.
While most stories of missing adoptive children never become public, some attract attention after their case ends in tragedy. Rilya Wilson, then 4, disappeared in 2001 and was missing for 15 months before authorities found out. She was never found. In 2020, 16-year-old Anaiah Walker was found dead in the middle of an Arizona highway after officials said she ran away from her group homes and became a victim of sex trafficking.
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Many children who disappear from foster care do so multiple times, according to the report. Between July 2018 and December 2020, state agencies recorded more than 110,000 missing child episodes involving approximately 44,000 of the more than one million foster children during the study. In five states – Nevada, Illinois, New York, Florida and Connecticut – missing children have made it an average of five to seven times.
But the lack of uniformity between states makes it impossible to make meaningful comparisons between states, Courtney said. In states like Illinois, missing children are reported almost immediately, which means the state counts a missing child case even if that child returns that day. Other states have waiting periods for filing reports, and states vary in how long they keep missing cases open, Casey said.
“No one should read this report and say, ‘Ah, this state has more young people on the run than any other state’ and try to make sense of that. It’s the take-out,” he said.
According to the report, teenagers are much more likely than younger children to go missing. Almost two-thirds of recorded missing child episodes involved children between the ages of 15 and 17, while only 2% of incidents involved children aged 11 or younger.
Those numbers match what experts who study older foster children have long known, Casey said. But more importantly, the figure speaks to a shortcoming in the foster care system that the numbers don’t explicitly reflect: teens are “voting with their feet” and voluntarily leaving foster care situations that don’t meet their needs.
“A teenage girl who wants to spend time with her boyfriend, or has a family member in the hospital who needs to be away for a few days and the social worker or the judge doesn’t recognize or allow that This child is going to be considered a “runaway,” Courtney said.
In her own survey of teens and young adults in foster care, Courtney said most reject the label “runaway” because it doesn’t reflect their situation or motivation. The lack of evidence-based placement options and service options for adolescents frustrates many and leads them to leave a group home or foster family, whether or not the departure has been approved.
Most of the children included in the report had been found, but approximately 6,600 were still missing at the end of the study. Of these, more than 2,700 were in California. But Bittner said the state relies on counties to run their own foster care programs, which makes him question communication between agencies and the accuracy of the number of children still missing in California.
California is not the only jurisdiction not to fully administer its foster care program at the state level. Ten other states fully or partially delegate their programs to individual counties, the report said. This kind of inconsistent system, Bittner said, raises questions about coordination between counties when a child goes missing and whether state agencies are appropriately allocating resources to find children.
“Having decentralized information makes it difficult to assess the extent of the problem,” he said.
Courtney, a professor at the University of Chicago, said disparities in state policies and data collection explain at least part of the disproportionate number of missing foster cases in California. Arizona removed missing adoptive child cases from its lists after six monthsand California keeps its missing children cases active until a child is at least 18 years old.
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In 12 states, children reported missing in foster care have died. A 15-year-old missing in California in January 2019 was found dead of a suspected drug overdose in Texas three days later, according to the report. California officials told the report’s authors they believe a man accompanying the child gave them deadly drugs.
The inspector general’s report does not include information on how the children disappeared – for example, by kidnapping or running away – race, ethnicity or type of placement. The authors wrote that some of the data provided by state agencies was incomplete, inaccurate, or not comparable across states, making a complete analysis impossible.
State agencies reported that their most common challenges in ensuring children are reported missing quickly and then located include cooperation from the children’s families and friends, police assistance, and finding the child. foster care for children that will deter them from running away. .
While the inspector general’s report makes no recommendations, the authors said they would follow up with the Child and Family Administration on any policy changes it makes in response. Bittner said he hopes the agency will assess why some states appear to be doing worse on missing children.
“I don’t think we want these kids to get lost in the foster care system,” he said, “and literally lost to the public eye.”