State Agencies Search for Foster Kids
By Kavan Peterson, Staff Writer
Since August, officials in California, Tennessee and Michigan have disclosed that hundreds of children are missing from state and county foster care systems, highlighting the problems states are having managing overburdened caseloads and tracking runaway teenagers.
"Anytime a child is missing, that's a big concern for us and we make all the efforts we can to try and locate them as quickly as possible," said Carla Aaron, a spokesperson for Tennessee's Department of Children's Services, who reported this month that one in 20 foster children were missing from the state foster system.
Tennessee officials reported that 98 percent of the 496 lost children are adolescent runaways. A few younger children have disappeared at the same time as their parents, Aaron said, indicating they were kidnapped.
State authorities usually move quickly to report and locate missing children by filing a report with the police and notifying the juvenile court system that the child is no longer under state supervision.
But it is hard to keep older teens in foster homes if they don't want to be there, Aaron said. Most of the 9,756 foster children in Tennessee live in private homes, and it is possible for them to run away anytime they want, she added.
When Michigan foster care officials announced in September that 300 foster kids were missing, Gov. John Engler declared that finding the children would be a top priority for state authorities. The state Family Independence Agency (FIA) has found 48 kids since September, when it created a "Child Locator" Web site and posted the names and photos of the missing children on the Internet.
Some child welfare advocates say that states aren't doing enough to account for the missing children and fail to provide the services and support to keep children in stable environments.
"Finding the kids is important, but not as important as figuring out why they're running away and preventing it from happening in the future," said Amy Pellman, legal director for the Alliance For Children's Rights, an advocacy group in Los Angeles that provides free legal counseling for foster children.
Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), the nation's largest foster care agency, reported in August that 740 foster children were missing. According to Stewart Riskin, DCFS spokesperson, this number is well below the national average for missing foster children.
Nationally, about two percent of foster children are currently runaways, but in Los Angeles County, only one percent of their 32,000 wards are runaways, said Riskin. This average is in line with the national average for all runaway children, which is one percent, Riskin said.
Scrutiny over missing foster children was spurred by the disappearance of 5-year-old Rilya Wilson in Florida, who was reported missing in April 2002 after a foster care worker failed to check up on her for 16 months. Wilson is still unaccounted for, and an initial review of the state foster system turned up nearly 1,000 missing children.
After authorities in Florida failed to locate about 400 of the 1,000 missing foster children by August, Gov. Jeb Bush ordered the creation of a strike-force of law enforcement and child welfare officials to track down the children.
To date, the strike-force has found 193 runaways, but officials in the Department of Children and Families say that some of those kids run away again within hours of being returned to their foster families.
Florida's foster care system has been the subject of widespread criticism from both child welfare officials and advocates. An independent review of the state's foster system performed by an Alabama child advocacy group earlier this year found that 75 percent of Florida's foster cases fell below acceptable standards.
The director of the review, Paul Vincent, of the Child welfare Policy and Practice Group, said that in Florida and 11 other states they've investigated, the largest problem states have is providing long-term permanency for foster children.
"The plans that are developed for (foster) kids are all made from the same cookie-cutter, they aren't individualized, and as a result aren't very effective," Vincent said. "Those things are causing many of the more serious problems in states- kids are staying in foster care too long, kids are moved when they shouldn't be, kids go home when they shouldn't, and kids who are moved all the time are the ones most likely to run away."
The missing foster children have highlighted concerns that the foster care system is overburdened by the largest national caseload in history, about 585,000 wards, coupled with a 25 percent decline in the number of foster parents over the past decade. There are currently about142,000 foster families.
Richard Wexler, president of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, said that states have been minimizing the plight of runaways and downplaying the risk these children are in.
In August, the body of17-year-old Marissa Karp was found in Collier county Florida, after she ran away from her foster family in April. The Collier County Sheriff's Office told the St. Petersburg Times that she was murdered.
The Daily News of Los Angeles reported that at least eight children have been killed or died in accidents in the past few years after running away or being abducted from foster care.
"If your, or my, teenage child ran away, we would move heaven and earth to find that child," Wexler said. "And when the state is the parent, it has the same obligation."