Child welfare workers across the country have kicked thousands of missing foster care children out of the system – including one child as young as 9-years-old, a review by 25 Investigates uncovered.
Since 2000, federal records show child welfare agencies across the country closed the cases of more than 53,000 foster kids listed as “runaway” and at least another 61,000 children listed as “missing.”
A nationwide investigation with Atlanta sister station WSB also uncovered a patchwork of policies with some states able to close a missing child’s case after just a few months, while others have policies on the books to keep missing cases open until the child turns 21.
The review found:
- Arizona and New Jersey allow child welfare workers to close a case if the child has been missing for at least six months.
- Illinois closed the case of a missing 9-year-old foster child in 2016. State officials said the case was closed after six months with court approval. Illinois said it opened a new investigation nearly a year later and found the child, who is now in foster care.
- Georgia eliminated its policy in 2016 that allowed the state to close the cases of children who are missing for a prolonged period. But officials there now admit to WSB that more than 50 cases of missing foster kids have been closed since that policy was eliminated.
- Many states have policies for what to do when a missing foster child returns to state care, but a vast number don't specifically address what steps to take when a child remains missing.
For years, Massachusetts DCF has been telling the feds it hasn’t closed a single case of a foster kid who’s missing, but researchers, child advocates and a review by 25 Investigates found otherwise.
Joanna, a 19-year-old former foster kid, says she ran away from a group home right before a suicide attempt landed her in the hospital last year, but she said no one came to find her.
“They did not care,” she said. “I’ve never gotten an email from my counselor, my DCF worker.”
Joanna says she was missing for less than two weeks before she went back and sought out a DCF caseworker.
“I was like, ‘Look, I really need help’ and when I went in, she said, ‘Your case is closed,’” said Joanna. “I knew right then I was screwed.”
DCF wouldn’t comment on Joanna’s case but says it can close any child’s case once they turn 18 – even if they’re missing.
DCF also said foster kids can contact the agency and sign a voluntary agreement to remain in state
care and receive services until age 21.
But Elisabeth Jackson, executive director of Bridge Over Troubled Waters in Boston, told 25 Investigates many of the homeless kids helped by her non-profit come from foster care and she’s calling out the system.
“If you feel like I’m pointing a finger at you, so be it,” said Jackson. “Come to the table. Let’s figure it out because we are seeing kids and I know you know that we are seeing kids.”
Massachusetts DCF reports it unloads more than 800 foster children from the system every year when they turn 18, but the agency told us it does not track how many of those kids were missing at the time they were discharged.
A new federal law now requires all states to report missing foster kids to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Washington, D.C. area. But even now, the center tells us that’s not always happening.
“There are agencies out there that have been known to close these cases and then, therefore, no one’s looking,” said Bob Lowery, vice president of the center’s missing children’s division.
Jackson says no one was looking for a 15-year-old girl – missing from foster care in New York – when she walked into the Boston nonprofit’s offices, saying she’d been abandoned by a “boyfriend.”
But Jackson said she believes the New York teen’s situation was much more ominous.
“She was trafficked. She was being put in a prostitution ring and she didn’t even know it,” said Jackson.
In Atlanta, an unidentified teenaged girl shot dead last year turned out to be a missing foster child.
When the victim's brother finally saw a facial reconstruction by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, he identified her as 17-year-old Dennetta Franks.
“It just sucks to know that she was speaking out, crying out for help and she never got it,” her brother told WSB in Atlanta.
In Boston, outreach worker Brittany Hill walks up to nine miles a day through the city streets, searching for at-risk kids and passing out cards for Bridge Over Troubled Waters.
25 Investigates witnessed one breakthrough last month when a homeless teen asked Hill for help finding a place to stay for the night.
Joanna says she’s been living on the street too ever since the day the state closed her case.
“I just broke down and I left. And I’ve been homeless for the last 11 months,” said Joanna. “Looking back on the situation, it really kills me.”
25 Investigates Intern Miranda Suarez contributed to this report.