“If they’re not in a situation where they’re being watched and properly guided, literally anything can happen,” Dan Bittner, HHS deputy regional inspector general and one of the report’s authors, said in a statement. interview. “And it happens.”
The Administration for Children and Families, a department of HHS that oversees the nation’s foster care system, did not respond to a request for comment.
While most stories of missing adoptive children never become public, some attract attention after their case ends in tragedy. Rilya Wilson, then 4, disappeared in 2001 and was missing for 15 months before authorities found out. She was never found. In 2020, 16-year-old Anaiah Walker was found dead in the middle of an Arizona highway after officials said she ran away from her group homes and was a victim of sex trafficking.
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Many children who disappear from foster care do so multiple times, according to the report. Between July 2018 and December 2020, state agencies recorded more than 110,000 missing child episodes involving approximately 44,000 of the more than one million foster children during the study. In five states – Nevada, Illinois, New York, Florida and Connecticut – missing children have made it an average of five to seven times.
According to the report, teenagers are much more likely than younger children to go missing. Almost two-thirds of recorded missing child episodes involved children between the ages of 15 and 17, while only 2% of incidents involved children aged 11 or younger.
Most of the children included in the report had been found, but approximately 6,600 were still missing at the end of the study. Of these, more than 2,700 were in California. But Bittner said the state relies on counties to run their own foster care programs, which makes him question communication between agencies and the accuracy of the number of children still missing in California.
California is not the only jurisdiction not to fully administer its foster care program at the state level. Ten other states fully or partially delegate their programs to individual counties, the report said. This kind of inconsistent system, Bittner said, raises questions about coordination between counties when a child goes missing and whether state agencies are appropriately allocating resources to find children.
“Having decentralized information makes it difficult to assess the extent of the problem,” he said.
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In 12 states, missing children in foster care have died. A 15-year-old missing in California in January 2019 was found dead of a suspected drug overdose in Texas three days later, according to the report. California officials told the report’s authors that they believed a man accompanying the child had given the fatal drugs.
The inspector general’s report does not include information on how the children disappeared – for example, by kidnapping or running away – race, ethnicity or type of placement. The authors wrote that some of the data provided by state agencies was incomplete, inaccurate, or not comparable across states, making a complete analysis impossible.
State agencies reported that their most common challenges in ensuring children are reported missing quickly and then found include gaining the cooperation of children’s families and friends, obtaining police assistance, and finding a placement in foster care for the children which will deter them from running away.
While the inspector general’s report makes no recommendations, the authors said they would follow up with the Child and Family Administration on any policy changes it makes in response. Bittner said he hopes the agency will assess why some states appear to be doing worse on missing children.
“I don’t think we want these kids to get lost in the foster care system,” he said, “and literally lost to the public eye.”