How should agencies respond?

By Jennifer Michael

When the news hit the airwaves in 2002, shock rippled through the country. How could a 5-year-old girl under the care of the social service system just simply disappear? But that is what happened to Rilya Wilson.

Born to a homeless drug addict, Rilya was taken into state custody when she was only a few months old. Eventually placed in the care of two Florida women, the little girl was last seen by a social worker with Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) in early 2001. More than a year later, DCF discovered Rilya was nowhere to be found.

[See “State of the States: Florida,”Children’s Voice, September/October 2002.]

The story touched off a media frenzy and placed child welfare agencies nationwide on alert about the children under their care. The media coverage has since subsided, but many public and private child welfare agencies are still asking themselves, “Do we know where all of our children are?”

Since reports of Rilya’s disappearance, states from Florida to California have reexamined their systems and, in some cases, instituted new programs targeted solely at children and youth who are missing, including those who have run away from foster families, residential facilities, or group homes. Many states now have a clearer picture of the children under their supervision. But child welfare workers admit more work remains to be done, not only in developing better tracking systems, but in building stronger relationships with law enforcement and in changing tendencies of turning a blind eye to children who run from agency-supervised care and custody.

“The word is getting out that if you have a missing child, you need to be looking at [the case],” says Lee Condon, Special Agent Supervisor for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Missing Children Information Clearinghouse. “Every case needs to be evaluated to determine what types of resources you need to be applying, and we are starting to see more and more resources being applied.”

Aside from the implications for child welfare systems, when children go missing or run from care (which accounts for most missing cases), they are at their most vulnerable, subject to innumerable dangers–crime, substance misuse, homelessness, and sexual exploitation.

Mark Courtney, Director of the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago, says, “It’s not uncommon for children to be victimized while on the runOea fair amount of drug and alcohol abuse occur, and [in most cases] running away represents an interruption in one’s education.”

Defining “Missing”

Not long after the news broke about Rilya Wilson’s disappearance, and with funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, CWLA joined with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) to study the issue of children missing from care and provide comprehensive guidance to child welfare and law enforcement agencies. Although the issue is not new, CWLA staff discovered a dearth of literature about children missing from care.

“Our knowledge is in its infancy, and more research is necessary,” says Caren Kaplan, CWLA’s Director of Child and Family Protection. “Research that does examine children who go missing principally focuses on birthfamilies.”

This past spring, CWLA published guidelines for agencies on monitoring the whereabouts and safety of children in foster care and how to effectively respond when a child is missing. NCMEC has also created a separate set of guidelines for law enforcement. Both are designed to compliment one another.

CWLA began examining the issue by defining the term missing from care. Under CWLA’s definition, a child missing from care is one who is not in the physical custody of the agency, individual, or institution with whom the child has been placed; the child’s actual whereabouts may be known or unknown.

Children missing from care generally fall into three groups: those who run away, those who are abducted, and those whose whereabouts are unknown by the agency due to the agency’s inattentiveness. Children who run away are the most researched of these three groups.

According to CWLA’s research, children in the care of the child welfare system are twice as likely to run away as are children of the same age in the general population. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2% of the 542,000 children in foster care in 2001 were runaways; 2% of the 263,000 children exiting foster care that year exited as runaways; and 437 of the 126,000 children waiting for adoption in 2001 were runaways.

In March 2005, Chapin Hall, in collaboration with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, released the results of the largest study to date of youth who run away from out-of-home care. Researchers combed through reams of government administrative data for more than 14,000 Illinois youth who ran from out-of-home care between 1993 and 2003. They also interviewed 42 youth who had recently run away and returned.

Ninety percent of runaways were ages 12-18. Girls were more likely to run away than were boys; black and Hispanic children were more likely to run than were whites; and youth with substance abuse or mental health problems were more likely to run than were kids who were not coping with these issues. Youth in foster homes were less likely to run from care than were those in residential care, and those living in the homes of relatives were even less likely to run. Youth placed with siblings were also less likely to run.

“The more placements children had, the more likely they were to run from placement,” Courtney notes. “This speaks to how running is really a manifestation of a lack of connection to family, to people that are important to [the youth]. Many of the youth expressed the sentiment, ‘Why wouldn’t I run? There’s nothing in terms of personal connections keeping me in this placement.'”

The number of runaways from the Illinois child welfare system declined each year during the study period, due to a decline in the state’s foster care population. But beginning in the late 1990s, youth who ran away at least once from out-of-home care were increasingly likely to run again. “More than 20% of youth who run once will run again within 30 days,” Courtney explains. “And more than 30% of youth who have run two or more times will run again within 30 days of their return.”

Paying Attention

So what’s being done in response to Rilya’s disappearance and to the thousands of youth who run from care every year? Many states are now paying closer attention to the issue. They have created task forces and improvement plans to explore how to make better use of technology, training, communication, and cooperation.

In Kentucky, for example, then-Secretary for Families and Children Viola Miller initiated a Kentucky Foster Care Census in 2002 to verify the safety and placement of every child in out-of-home care. Conducted between September 2002 and January 2003, the census accounted for all 6,300 children in the state’s foster care system. [See “State of the States: Kentucky,” Children’s Voice, May/June 2004.]

Kentucky census takers met with each child in the child’s foster home, residential setting, or relative placement. They collected extensive data on child well-being indicators from foster parents and agency staff, and 85% of all adult care providers completed a comprehensive interview on child well-being indicators and their needs as foster parents or care providers.

The census yielded abundant opportunities to apply the findings, improve the quality of care, and conduct further research. The process was labor intensive but inexpensive

because the census employed 200 college students from eight public universities and three private colleges in Kentucky as census takers and researchers.

“We learned a great deal about our system in ways we could not have learned before,” says Ruth Huebner, a child welfare researcher with the Kentucky Foster Care Census. “Part of the intent was to [ensure] we knew where every child was. And we actually did find every child, but we found some children who were at risk for being lost.”

Huebner say the census “is something we’d like to do every four or five years to just make absolutely sure that you can look somebody in the eye and say, ‘Yes, we know where 100% of our kids are, and we know the issues they are   facing.'”

Illinois is also making every effort to know the whereabouts of all children in its care, around the clock. In 2003, the state Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) launched a 24-hour missing-child unit with a staff of 17. The unit’s job is to closely monitor the progress of all cases of children missing from care through a computer database that downloads information daily from a DCFS client database and automatically lists when a child is missing. The database includes photographs, fingerprints, and medical information for every child.

“The database, in and of itself, is pretty extraordinary,” says Judith Dunning, Statewide Coordinator for Missing Children in Illinois. “I find it helpful as an administrator to go in and check what is being done. Before the database, we had no medical records. We were supposed to have pictures, but those pictures were in caseworker files.”

Michigan’s Family Independence Agency also uses computer technology to its advantage. In 2002, Michigan became the first state to launch a website listing the names and photos of missing children. [See “State of the States: Michigan,”Children’s Voice, January/February 2003.] As of April 8, 2005, the child locator website had received more than 120,000 hits, 1,784 children had been listed, 1,560 children had been located and removed from the site, and the phone tip line listed on the website had received 600 calls, leading to 23 children being located or returned.

In Rilya Wilson’s home state, shortly after reports of her disappearance, Governor Jeb Bush instituted Operation SafeKids in August 2002. Under the initiative, Florida’s Department of Law Enforcement and DCF collaborated with local law enforcement to create seven regional child location strike forces to locate children reported missing. Of 393 missing children, 290 were located under the initiative, and recommendations were drawn up to improve the state’s ability to identify, investigate, and recover missing children.

Major goals and accomplishments of Operation SafeKids include standardization of DCF reporting definitions, and automation of the process; improving communication and information exchange between DCF and local law enforcement; creation of investigative support units in each DCF district; and development of training curriculum for law enforcement and DCF personnel.

Rilya, however, has never been found, but closure eventually may be reached in the case. Last March, Geralyn Graham, the woman who had been caring for Rilya, was indicted on first-degree murder, kidnapping, and aggravated child abuse in connection with the little girl’s disappearance.

“What If It Were My Kid?”

Florida has been home to many recent, high profile missing children’s cases, including 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford and 13-year-old Sarah Lunde. But unlike these cases, where the missing child’s network of family and friends have pushed for publicity and implemented their own searches in addition to the search by law enforcement, there is often little news splash about children missing from foster care, residential care, or group home settings.

“Unfortunately, with a foster child…you are not going to have the same rallying and pioneering for them,” says Condon of Florida’s Missing Children Information Clearinghouse. “Many times, when a foster child goes missing, law enforcement will take the report and enter the child into [the National Crime Information Center] like they are supposed to, but they don’t have the resources to go out and look for every child that is a runaway or a parental abduction unless they have some real, concrete evidence that the child’s life is at risk.”

According to CWLA’s Kaplan, one of the best ways to prevent a child from going missing is to improve the quality of foster care services, particularly by ensuring the voices of children and youth are heard, respected, and considered in all decisions that affect them, and that relationships are strengthened between caseworkers and the children and youth under their care. The Chapin Hall study found that caseworkers play crucial roles in whether youth run from care.

“Many youth describe caseworkers much as they would describe extended family, and, in many cases, they wish the caseworkers played more of that kind of a role with them,” Courtney says. “Caseworkers are also important with respect to continuity, or lack thereof, while in out-of-home care. They have access to the youth’s complete history, and they can also facilitate other relationships that are important for these youth.”

All the more reason for legislators to fund more positions in their states for caseworkers, Condon points out. “You can’t have a caseworker receiving 30 cases in a week and expect them to do the checks and all the things they are required to do,” she says. “Humanly, it’s impossible.”

Illinois’s Dunning perhaps best sums up advice for child welfare staff and administrators, as well as for policymakers, about children missing from out-of-home care: “Be vigilant parents.”

“Nationally, the child welfare system is always going to have this problem,” she says. “And nationally, we have to think, ‘What would I do if it were my kid?'”

Jennifer Michael is Managing Editor of Children’s Voice.