Missing in the Land of Oz

At present, the world is being bombarded with exposed open secrets.

Happened in Hollywood. Happened in Government. Happened in the world of Comedy.

Foster Care is no exception. We’ve got a secret that we all know about, but dare not speak about.

Since the beginning of an organized foster care system, there have been two things; kids and missing kids.

A Kansas child welfare task force meeting decided it would be the venue to let the cat of the bag, but those of us in or around the system already knew. We already knew that kids went missing. We knew they run away. We knew about botched or incomplete records. We knew about clerical errors. We knew about (mild wording) unintended reunifications where the family felt that the child had spent enough time in care. So, they just came and took them home. We knew about all these things. What the meeting and a pointed line of questioning did was put a number on our dirty little secret; 70 missing youth, double the previous year’s count and a show of unawareness on the part of the top-tier of the foster care system.

Kansas, the land of Orphan Train stops would come back into the limelight for yet another child welfare related issue. This time, they had to explain where all their kids were. They couldn’t do it.

From there, this Editor began to stand in the deluge of requests to cover the story. As you may know, I am in a unique position as both, a former foster kid and as the editor of a national magazine on the subject. In addition to that, I happened to have met with the Secretary of Kansas’ Department of Children and Families, Phyllis Gilmore, in person, in Kansas.

As I am known to do, I traversed the country on my annual rounds about 2 years ago. I was invited to sit down with Sec. Gilmore while passing through the Sunflower state. Our time was only an hour, but we covered a gamut of topics. Runaways came up briefly. It isn’t my place to judge what type of person someone is, only their qualifications and skill level. On a whole, Gilmore knows her stuff. She’s well-informed on her job and its many facets.

This makes the events during that child welfare task force meeting all the more perplexing. When posed with a question of missing foster youth in the Kansas system, Gilmore appeared lost, ill-informed. Not the poised, confidently informed that rattled of stats and case examples to me for 60 minutes.

As mentioned, missing foster youth is foster care’s open secret. For over two decades the number of cases one could deem as a missing youth case dangled around 10%. For someone within the system, 10% is less of an alarming number and more a show of improvement from staggering numbers in the 1990’s. But as Author, Shenandoah Chefalo is quick to point out, if 10% of your town disappeared tomorrow, you’d spend the day trying to find their whereabouts. You’d be panicked.

To an outsider, 10%, or 4600 missing foster youth nationwide, is reason for 4600 Amber Alerts. That’s a justified reaction. What those within the system know, that perhaps the layman doesn’t, is, the many routes a foster youth takes to become a missing case.

There is a real chance that the tone of this article will veer to the side of either the kids who have been classified as missing, or to the people designated to care for them. My unique background has weighed heavy as I write this piece. This is my eighth attempt at writing a balanced review of what happened in October of 2017.

Full Disclosure:

I was a runner. I had errored paperwork. I had a caseworker that counted me among 25 other kids.

I am also a “success” story. I am also a colleague. I am the observer of all things foster care. I am a confidant to those who work in this field. I am to always be the voice of reason. I am the one who needs to present all aspects of a story to my readers.

So, I’m coming into this with eight kinds of baggage. Probably the reason for the 8 drafts of this article.

I attempted to write an emotionless, objective look at this story. That isn’t who I am. That’s not what’s expected of me. I’m told readers want my perspective on these issues they ask me to write about myself, as opposed to one of the more talented Contributors that Foster Focus gives a platform.

Would I be more comfortable with one of the NY Times Best-Selling Authors or one of the dozens of seasoned foster care advocates who contribute to Foster Focus to pen this important article? Of course, I would. If not for the overwhelming requests for me to tackle it, that is exactly what would have happened. The support the magazine gets needs to be reciprocated, this is how I can accomplish that.

But my writing style is conversational. It’s not emotional or stiff. The magazine, at least the content I provide, is meant to feel more like a salon in my living room. And my job is to keep you interested while cramming as many facts and figures in front of your eyes as you’ll allow. Now that you know all that, let’s get into the problem in Kansas and the moreover, foster care, nationally.

Using Kansas as our touchstone, we will walk through this apparent epidemic.

We’ll start at the start. A child is placed into foster care for various reasons, most of which have very little to do with them or their behavior. The top two reasons a child enters care are abuse and neglect. Once in the system, attempts are made to find a family member who can care for the child. When that step is unsuccessful, a foster home is sought. In many cases, a foster home is not available, and a child may find themselves in a group home, juvenile holding facility, a motel or in some cases, an office.

Once housing is established a new set of circumstances arise. Compatibility tops the list of concerns in a traditional foster home. For group homes and detention centers, survival depends on the facility. Can the youth adapt to either the more subdued setting of a traditional foster home or the intensity and claustrophobia that detention centers or, to a lesser extent, group homes, becomes the question that determines their outcome.

Make no qualms about it, foster care sucks. It’s dismal, traumatic, life altering and one of the more intense experiences a person can have in their lives. Even if Donna Reed were your Foster Mom or your group home was in the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles, foster care would still be traumatic. Remove everything that occurs when a child becomes a foster youth, it is still a child being taken from their family. There are few things more traumatic.

This is where we introduce the idea of runaways.

For this, I’ll go to experience. This is what it feels like when you live somewhere that isn’t your home; foreign and crushingly uncomfortable. I ran before, during and after foster care. I am what you call a runner. The first few times I ran from foster homes it was for thrills and to see friends from home. Later it would become a way to avoid dealing with a less than ideal life. Back then, removing myself from the situation seemed like the best course of action. Foster youth of today are no different. Running away is still the move of choice for a great deal of foster youth, specifically teens in care. Children in foster care are twice as likely as other children to run away.

Runaways account for 90% of the 70 cases with a foster youth deemed missing in Kansas according to a statement by the spokesperson for KVC Kansas. The contract for Kansas’ foster care system is held by two contractors (providers) KVC Kansas and Saint Francis Community Services. They split foster care in Kansas 50-50. Every thirty days, these contractors report back the Kansas Department of Children and Families. Those reports are accessible at any time. When a foster youth runs away, the contractors are required by law to report it to the local and state authorities.

So common is the practice of running away that caseworkers nationally tell me they encourage foster youth to call in if they runaway. These calls are generally of the well-being variety and rarely include a location.

Where are they running? Home, mostly. Even though life at home may have been a mess, it’s their mess and that’s where they would prefer to be. They also run to friend’s homes.

There are some scary scenarios as well. It is a well-known fact that foster youth are highly susceptible to human trafficking. They are also at risk for committing desperation crimes and other poor choices. Some of these kids run from one problem, to a much bigger problem. In 2013, 60 percent of the children who were victims of child sex trafficking rescued from a FBI nationwide raid conducted over 70 cities were children from foster care or group homes. These children were found in hotel rooms, truck stops, and even homes.

As an example of this epidemic, I cite the several raids throughout the country in the weeks leading up to the release of this article. The sum total of recovered lost or missing youth reached over 80 children. A more thorough tally of the victims was not readily available, though you can presume a number of those children found their origin within the foster care system. This is the danger a portion of that 90% rate of runaway foster youth face when they leave the eyes of the system. They don’t all run home. Some of those friends they escape foster care to join aren’t always the kind of kids you would invite to your Sunday dinner. Exposure to some of the seedier realities of life are alluring to someone who feels cast off from society. The want for a family, any family, runs strong in those who have gone through trauma.

It is difficult to breakdown that other 10% of the reported missing youth. As difficult as it may be, one can make assumptions based on decades of foster care data. There is something that needs addressed before this area of information; the lack of current information.

It’s something those work in foster care or its advocates find frustration with. I am no different. While I can tell you what product Target shoppers bought the most of this week, I cannot give you an accurate count of kids in foster care this year. As a community, our statistics are woefully behind. One to two years to be exact. Granted, foster care is a huge system, as many moving parts as any of industry, but the inability to collect and distribute up to the minute data certainly hinders any attempts to improve or streamline a system in such dire need of those improvements.

Without that crucial data it’s near impossible to pinpoint how that other 10% of the missing cases became classified as such. Previous data will be utilized to make some educated guesses.

Some of these missing foster youth cases involve the biological family retrieving their children. This type of incident is easy to explain, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Not every foster care placement is met with compliance. As traumatic as foster care is for the child, it may be equally traumatic for the parents from which they’ve been removed. Not every parent is content to let the process play out and wait for reunification. I can cite a story from the first year of the magazine that garnered national attention.

It happened at a group home in New York City, (but do not let the setting give you the impression that this doesn’t happen in every corner of the country, it’s not an issue exclusive to urban population) the parents of seven children in the care of the group home had decided they had enough of listening to the state’s orders. During an on-site visit, in plain view of several staff members, they sent a child or two at a time to the vending machines where they slipped outside the facility to a waiting van. They continued that pattern until everyone made their way to the van. They were apprehended several days later in another state, their forced reunification cut short.

The last possibility, though a rarity, is erred or misplaced paperwork. This is an area that has become a decreasing problem area with improvement of computer data system. However, if foster care is behind the population in terms of data distribution, it’s nearly in the Stone Age when it comes to technical prowess. Foster care is government run, the government still uses programs found on floppy discs. In this area there is hope. A new generation of foster care workers and advocates have risen with force in the fight to update this antiquated system of data collection, including the way the dozens of agencies involved in the system on a state, national and local level communicate with one another. Hackathons designed to experiment and improve existing systems have taken place with increasing frequency over the last decade.

What is evident is that those on the frontlines of foster care are giving it their all, much to their own frustration. Heavy caseloads, uncooperative clients, miscommunications, self-care issues and of course, runaways, weigh heavy on the average social worker/case manager. A large turnover rate of employment can also hinder progress being made to curb issues that effect foster youth. Consistency in any field is crucial for the evolution of that field. Foster care stands little chance of addressing its issues when the faces making decisions keep changing.

With all the facts in front of us, let’s explore what brought on all this scrutiny.

It was to be a run of the mill meeting of a Kansas child welfare task force in early October. Their task; explore areas of concern, tend to new business, a general look over of the state system. It was the answer to a question about a specific case that drew the ire of the task force, the media and eventually, the general public. The answer, or non-answer to that question led to further inquiry.

Foster care contractors were called upon to provide information during a meeting of an oversight panel at the Statehouse in response to questions about the disappearance. A routine question about a case of three missing youth from Tonganoxie, a small-town east of the state capital became anything but routine.

The girls, sisters, aged between 12-15, had gone missing from their foster home months earlier. When asked about the case, Secretary Gilmore acknowledged she was unaware of the case. Outraged, Senators called for further questioning.

The oversight committee’s questioning garnered national attention. The idea that the head of the department charged with the care of foster youth was an aware of the missing children in their stead. Most vocal and seemingly, most offended by Gilmore’s lack of awareness was Democratic Senator from Topeka, Laura Kelly, whose question to Gilmore spurred the flurry of outrage.

“I am flabbergasted,” Kelly said. “I used to work in this world years and years ago and I understand that where you have teenagers, you will have runners and they will go and they will do this kind of stuff. But the fact that the person in charge of the wards of the state has no idea that these kids are missing from her custody is just astounding to me”, said Sanchez of the situation.

The contentious meeting lasted several hours with all the key players fielding questions. Their answers did little to satisfy the committee. “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, a Merriam Democrat. “Where are these kids at? Who’s looking out for these kids?”

Gilmore’s response was stern; “You heard everyone expressing that it is extremely concerning and worrisome, especially when many of them are teenage girls in the light of the issues surrounding human trafficking,” Gilmore said. She cited the 90% runaway rate, noting “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. “So, it isn’t always a tragedy, but some certainly can be and that’s why we have to take it all very seriously.”

Calls for Gilmore’s resignation were immediate. She resigned her post December 1st. In her departing statement Gilmore wrote; ““Together with the Brownback Administration we have built a legacy that promotes independence, encourages personal responsibility and protects the children of Kansas that will endure for years to come.”

A new Secretary was appointed shortly thereafter by Kansas Lt. Governor Jeff Colyer. Gina Meier-Hummel, who will be leaving her post as the director of the Children’s Shelter in Lawrence and has been involved in Kansas’ social service system for decades was named as Gilmore’s successor.

She joined the Children’s Shelter in 2015. Prior to that, she served in positions within the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services and DCF. She spent more than a decade working at KVC, one of the state’s foster care contractors. DCF oversees the foster care system in Kansas.

She announced an era of a “new transparent agency.”

If one can look beyond the headlines, it may appear that foster care has a runaway problem, an accountability problem or at the very least, systemic problems that may never be resolved.

In the end, we are back where we began; foster care is a system in need of repair. Most of those 70 missing foster youth in Kansas and the 4600 nationally are still missing. The system is still in dire need of upgrades in all facets and we are still left with a lack of answers.

For Kansas, there is hope in a new leader, new innovations, stricter organization and motivation to make improvements. Nationally, there is a wave of optimism that technology will aid in leading the system to a path that ends in less foster youth being unaccounted for and a streamlined system for protecting our nation’s youth.