Number of missing Kansas foster kids doubled over two years

Authorities found a youth this week who had vanished from the state’s foster care system more than 300 days ago.

Scores are still missing, including an older teenager who has been gone for more than two years.

The number of runaway foster children in Kansas slowly fell during the first few years of Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration, but then more than doubled from fall 2015 to August 2017, far outpacing the overall growth of the foster care system.

The number of missing children remains a small percentage of the total number of foster children, but lawmakers are expressing outrage and calling for action.

Some children are found quickly, within a day or two. Others stay missing for weeks and months.

“Here we have kids who have had a lot of trauma in their lives. They might not like the rules. They might be addicted to substances,” said Christie Appelhanz, director of the Children’s Alliance of Kansas.

“So they run for a variety of reasons and ... while I don’t think it’s right that they run, it’s certainly not surprising to people who understand trauma.”

The question that lawmakers began asking this week: Is Kansas’ social service agency doing enough to find missing foster children as quickly as possible?

Legislators at a hearing Tuesday said they were shocked to learn more than 70 Kansas foster children were missing.

The Department for Children and Families, which oversees the state’s privatized foster care system, said the number was not unusual and amounted to 1 percent of the more than 7,000 children in the system.

That didn’t satisfy some lawmakers.

“If that from the department’s sense is an OK number – the 1 percent stated, if that’s acceptable, if that’s within tolerance – what are we doing about it?” said Rep. Jarrod Ousley, D-Merriam. “Where are these kids at? Who’s looking out for these kids?”

The missing children are the latest controversy to surround the Kansas Department for Children and Families, which has been hit with harsh audits and criticism from lawmakers during Secretary Phyllis Gilmore’s tenure.

Some lawmakers and a Wichita GOP candidate for governor are calling on her to resign. Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, wants the state to create an Amber Alert-type system for missing foster children.

“I want to hammer out a protocol that gets activated immediately upon knowledge of a missing foster care kid,” she said.

Runaways rising

From the start of the Brownback administration through August, the number of children in foster care increased by about 40 percent, while the number of runaways rose by about 24 percent.

When Brownback entered office in January 2011, the monthly number of runaways was at about 70. It slowly trended down to between 40 and 50 for much of 2015.

At the same time, the overall number of children in the foster care system has steadily risen, from about 5,000 children in January 2011 to a little more than 7,000 this summer.

The number of runaways per month has increased since fall 2015. The agency reported about 37 runaways in October that year; in August 2017, it was at 86.

That’s a jump of about 132 percent. The number of foster children overall rose by about 13 percent during that time.

KVC Kansas, one of the foster care contractors, said Tuesday it had 38 missing children. The other company, Saint Francis Community Services, said 36 were missing in its system.

Saint Francis responded to questions from McClatchy later in the week and noted that as of Wednesday, its number of missing kids had fallen to 31. KVC’s number remained at 38.

From July 2013 to Oct. 11, Saint Francis said, 296 children ran away at least once. Among children who run away, the average number of incidents is two.

The foster child with Saint Francis who this week had been missing the longest, roughly 310 days, was found Wednesday, the contractor said Friday. It said it could not provide other details about the case.

KVC said in an email that 28 of its missing children are female and 10 are male, and the average age is 16.

The longest current missing case for KVC is “an older teenager close to aging out” who has been missing for more than two years, KVC said.

An issue in other states

The Department for Children and Families said in a statement that the issue of foster children running away is not unique to Kansas. The 1 percent of Kansas children in foster care who are considered missing correlates with the national average, the agency said.

The agency also outlined procedures for these situations. Those steps include filing a missing person report, according to DCF, and notifying the court of the child’s missing status.

“These children who run away are not under lock and key; they are generally in family foster homes, older youth, who attend school and activities, and they often miss their biological families,” Gilmore said.

“We work closely with our foster care contractors, law enforcement, the school system and affected families to locate missing children as quickly as possible.”

Missouri also has missing children, though currently at a lower percentage than Kansas.

The Missouri Children’s Division said Friday that as of Sept. 30, 83 children in its custody were missing out of more than 13,400 children. Almost all of those missing, 81, were between the ages of 14 to 21.

Tim Decker, the director of the Children’s Division, called it a concerning and complex issue.

“I wish we didn’t have any,” he said. “... One child out there that’s vulnerable and missing and so forth, we should be as concerned about that as if we have five or 10 or whatever. It’s just that the problem gets proportionally bigger with the numbers and more concerning. But we should be concerned about one child.”

Decker said he doesn’t take comfort in being at or below the national average. “I’ll take more comfort when we don’t have any kids anymore that are missing.”

Why they run

Saint Francis said children go missing for a variety of reasons.

Of the 31 children missing from Saint Francis on Oct. 11, 14 were female and 17 were male. The average age was 16.

“Some miss their families and want to return to their biological parents,” the company said. “Some have challenges with addiction. But we don’t stop looking for any of the kids who are missing.”

Since July 2013, Saint Francis has averaged 22 children per month who go missing, according to the email.

“Many children return the next day,” Saint Francis said. “Every child and every situation is different.”

Troubled Teen Help, an organization that provides resources for parents, estimates that approximately one in seven children between 10 and 18 will run away at least once. The National Runaway Safeline says between 1.6 and 2.8 million run away each year.

The disruption of the foster system may make a child even more likely to run.

“All leave – and return – for different reasons,” Saint Francis said. “Most children are ultimately found to have been staying with friends or family.”

Still, runaways are at risk.

“A child who has run away from home is in danger,” the Kansas Bureau of Investigation warns in its missing persons brochure.

Rep. Linda Gallagher, R-Lenexa, said she is worried because Kansas is known to be a crossroads for human trafficking.

"The possibility that some of these children could be ending up being trafficked and therefore going from one bad situation to an even worse situation, that's just a real concern," she said.

Theresa Freed, a spokeswoman for DCF, said that 92 percent of the children considered missing are ages 12 and older.

“Those under 12, in many cases, are considered on the run with a parent,” Freed said in the email. “The parent may be hiding the child from coming into State care. These cases are not referred to the contractors, as this happens prior to the child coming into State care.”

Calls for change

Mark Hutton, a GOP candidate for governor and former state lawmaker from Wichita, on Friday called for a leadership change at DCF.

In a statement, Hutton’s campaign described Gilmore’s tenure as “increasingly defined by a total lack of accountability and a near endless stream of failures affecting foster children, at-risk youth, and children facing abuse in their home environments.”

“It is time for accountability in our state government,” Hutton said. "The continued failures at the Department for Children and Families are unacceptable, with the most vulnerable among us paying the price, and it's time that the Brownback-Colyer administration do something about it."

McClatchy sought comment from Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, who is expected to become governor in a matter of weeks after Brownback departs for the Trump administration. But his office did not issue a statement.

Some Democrats have long called for Gilmore to step down from DCF, including Ousley.

He said he sat on the House Children and Seniors Committee for two years and listened to how “everything was fine.”

But it wasn’t, he said.

“This is a basic human decency thing to take care of the kids that don’t have anyone to take care of them,” he said.

Source : http://amp.kansas.com/news/politics-government/article178806506.html

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