A report published Monday by a federal watchdog sheds new light on the scope of missing foster children in Missouri, an issue that infuriated state lawmakers last year and led to accusations that Department of Social Services leadership was failing to take accountability.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General reported that there were 1,780 instances of foster children going missing in Missouri over a two-and-a-half year period that spanned July 2018 to December 2020.
Four percent of all children in Missouri’s foster care system went missing during that time. Across the country, there were 110,446 missing children episodes, underscoring a nationwide problem.
In Missouri, the average time a child was missing was 37 days — with nine states’ averaging over 50 days. On average, a child went missing from foster care in Missouri two times, with some states reaching an average of five and seven times.
“The number of days is quite concerning,” said Rep. Sarah Unsicker, D-Shrewsbury. “I don’t know whether during that time frame we were putting sufficient resources into finding missing kids.”
A spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday on the report’s findings.
Children who go missing from foster care are at a higher risk of experiencing harm, substance use and trafficking, according to the report.
A previous audit of Missouri’s Children’s Division found that several missing foster children had used drugs and a few became pregnant. In one instance, a child had been sex-trafficked in as many as four states while missing.
Last year’s report by the Office of Inspector General found Missouri failed to sufficiently reduce children’s risk of going missing from the foster care system and frequently failed to notify local and federal authorities they were missing. Last year’s report found 978 children were missing at some point from Missouri foster care in 2019.
The findings sparked outrage from lawmakers last year, who pressed officials for answers at subsequent legislative hearings on the issue. Since then, the Children’s Division — which oversees the state’s foster care system — is under new leadership, as is the department as a whole.
Rep. Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka, said conversations with the new Children’s Division Director Darrell Missey contributed to her removing a provision in legislation earlier this year that would have allowed $50,000 fines to be issued against providers who failed to report a child in their custody was missing.
“He has a heart for these kids. And we see change coming,” Bailey said during House debate in April, “so I took the $50,000 penalty provision out of this bill in good faith that I do trust him and he gives me hope for that department and shaping it up.”
The bill, which also would have raised the age of a missing child to 18 in an effort to ensure law enforcement take such reports, passed the House unanimously in May but failed to gain traction in the Senate in the session’s final weeks.
Unsicker said she believes under new leadership the department has come to the table to try to make changes, but still hopes to see lawmakers pass reforms to ensure the department is accountable.
“DSS historically has shown that it needs a watchdog, given problems that it’s had in the past,” Unsicker said. “I’m much more confident in the new directors. But I think that it helps to have them know that there’s an eye on them. And we’re not just letting these children disappear.”
Unsicker said she was concerned that the number of missing foster children has increased in recent months.
Since February, the number of children in Children’s Division custody listed with the status of “RUN” has hovered at 100 or more, with 110 children with the designation in February. That’s since dropped slightly to 100 as of April, according to the Children’s Division’s latest figures.
The issue of labeling missing kids with the “RUN” designation was highlighted in last year’s report as an area that makes it difficult to determine if a child is truly missing and their whereabouts are unknown versus children in an unauthorized placement that officials are aware of.
In the Department of Social Services’ budget passed earlier this month, lawmakers included $8 million for the development of a new, comprehensive child welfare information system.
A dozen states, though not Missouri, reported that some of the children who went missing ultimately died. In California, a 15-year-old was found dead of a suspected drug overdose three days after going missing.
States varied in how they defined a missing child, with some reporting them as soon as they learned a child is missing while others required a 24-hour waiting period. A handful of states had created special units to specifically locate missing children, while a dozen only required the foster care provider or state agency to contact law enforcement in the case of a missing child, according to the report.
“Without ensuring that missing children are accurately and expeditiously reported, state agencies lack assurance that all appropriate agencies are promptly initiating searches for missing children,” the report read.
The report made no recommendations, but expects it will be used to help improve outcomes. The report could not conduct comprehensive analyses on factors such as race and the precise status of missing children, in part, because of incomplete and incomparable data received from states.
The federal watchdog noted it also has an ongoing audit of states’ reporting to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
This article by Tessa Weinberg is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.