How Many Missing Foster Care Children is Too Many?

By: Sarah Purtill and Nico Zulli 

The story of 3 sisters in the Kansas foster care system brought to the forefront how many foster care children are considered missing. The 3 sisters return, aged 12, 14, and 15, is one of the few instances that ends on a bright note. The girls were found safe and no arrests were made in connection with their disappearance.

Not all foster kids who disappear have the same story. In Kansas alone, there are 74 children missing from the foster care system, which has 7,100 children under its care. Regardless of how many children there are in the Kansas foster care system, 74 missing children is a number anyone with a conscience would think is too high.

In Kansas, the foster care system is privatized and split into two agencies or contractors; foster children in the western part of Kansas are under the supervision of Saint Francis Community Service’s and in the eastern part of Kansas, foster children are under the supervision of KVC Kansas. Despite Kansas having privatized their foster care system, the number of missing foster care children is still on par with the national average, which is approximately 1%. The United States Department of Health and Human Services reported that during the 2015 federal government’s fiscal year, approximately 4,600 foster care children were listed as runaways which is about 1.1% of the almost 428,000 total.

The outrage over these numbers in Kansas is a reaction we should be seeing around the nation over how many foster care children are missing. Despite what most would call an unreasonable number of children missing in Kansas, Phyllis Gilmore, the head of the Kansas Department for Children and Families (DCF) said she was not aware of the sisters’ disappearance before the Kansas City Star first reported it. Gilmore claims that tracking children in foster care is just one of the department’s responsibilities. She says the department has policies in place to attempt to find missing children and return them to their foster homes.

“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,” she said. Many of the foster care children run away because they are subjected to a multitude of different kinds of abuse. As children, they do not always understand what is happening to them and they just want to escape. But these are not the only reasons foster children run away. Foster care children have often experienced addiction and/or trauma. The system should be built in a way to account for these situations as they are prevalent amongst foster care kids.

Phyllis Gilmore was criticized for her lack of knowledge on the three sisters disappearance. Photo Courtesy of the Wichita Eagle.

“There’s a break between DCF and the contracting,” said Representative Steve Alford. “Once the children … [go from the court] into the possession of the secretary, she hands them off to the contractors and it’s their responsibility, you know, it’s kind of like out of sight, out of mind in a lot of aspects.” This does not justify the irresponsibility of any agency involved in caring for foster children. The idea that these agencies feel they can “pass the buck” when it comes to the lives of children should be considered abhorrent and needs to be addressed by legislation. These children in the foster care system are relying on these agencies to care for them when they have no one else currently able to care for them.

Chad Anderson, chief clinic officer at KVC Kansas, acknowledged that contractors can do a better job. “I don’t know that we as contractors have shared as much in terms of missing youth and the day to day as we probably should,” Anderson said. He added that contractors update the Department of Children and Families every 30 days on the action taken to locate the missing children.  The first 48 hours are critical to finding a missing child. The fact that DCF can’t even employ it’s supposed “policies” until as many as 29 days after a foster child has been missing, even if its a runaway, dramatically affects whether or not the child will be found safely.

We owe it to these children to do a better job at maintaining their whereabouts and safety and protect them from abuse. The Legislature needs to address these issues for foster care children as they need someone to fight for them when it is clear that the current set up leaves them prey to potentially life threatening situations and a multitude of different kinds of abuse. The agencies involved in the foster care system need to be policed better so as to better serve the safety of the children they were put in place to protect.

For more information, please see:

Fox News – 3 Missing Kansas Foster Children Found Safe; Man Released – 17 October 2017

Wichita Eagle – Number of Missing Foster Kids Doubled Over Two Years – 14 October 2017

Fox News – More Than 70 Kids Missing From Kansas Foster Care System – 12 October 2017

HPPR – More Than 70 Kids Missing From Kansas’ Foster Care System – 11 October 2017

Kansas City Star – How did 70-plus Children Go Missing From the Kansas Foster Care System? – 11 October 2017

Time – ‘Flabbergasted.’ More Than 70 Children are Missing From Foster Care – 11 October 2017

US News – 70 Plus Children Missing From Kansas Foster Care System – 11 October 2017

Fostering Prospectives – Preventing and Responding to Runaways From Foster Care – May 2014

OJJDP Report – When Your Child is Missing: A Family Survival Guide – May 1998