The Kansas City Star’s Mary Sanchez recently wrote an editorial regarding children in foster care who are missing or have runaway. Sanchez makes numerous assumptions about whether the Kansas Department for Children and Families (DCF) is doing enough to locate these children. I can assure you as Secretary of the agency that oversees the well-being of more than 7,000 children in foster care, I am very much aware of the issue, protocols are in place to locate missing children, and the children are often found and returned to the foster care system within a matter of days.
It is terribly unfortunate that the agency, and I personally, have been depicted as knowing nothing about children missing from foster care. It is an effort to harm the integrity of the agency and encourage the public to question the safety of Kansas children. This kind of rhetoric is harmful to the morale of DCF staff, and more importantly, the trust between the agency and those we serve.
The reality is quite different from what “outraged” legislators would have you believe. Allow me to share with you who the children are, we consider missing. In 92 percent of the cases, they are young people, ages 12 and older. They have been removed from the only home they know, placed in an unfamiliar setting, and they miss their families, their schools and their communities. And they are eager to find a way to get back to them. The teens are not incarcerated, or under constant watch. They are typical youth who go to school, hang out with friends and participate in activities. As parents, we expect our children to return home each day to us—their family, a home filled with love, support and rules. To a child not accustomed to these things and with a family he/she doesn’t know, it is plain to see why some runaway. An estimated 1 percent of youth in foster care run away. This corresponds with the national average. And while the information may be new to legislators, it is common knowledge among those involved in the child welfare system.
We know this inherent risk exists when children are placed in family foster homes. But our goal is to put them in the least restrictive environment that provides a family-like setting. Through our existing policies and procedures, we provide our foster care contractors with clear direction on the mandatory steps that must be taken when a child is missing. And the steps include almost immediate notification to DCF, law enforcement and the child’s school system. We have staff who reach out to family, friends and others by various methods. And we don’t stop searching until they are found.
The State of Kansas is not a parent—and should not be, as Sanchez suggests. The Government was never equipped to raise a family. But we do take seriously our obligation to protect children and ensure their well-being.
Secretary Phyllis Gilmore