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Two out of three recommendations to protect missing children still open for Missouri foster care system


The Missouri Children’s Division has been taking steps to protect youth who go missing from foster care, but one federal agency doesn’t think enough has been done. 

Missouri has more than 13,000 foster children in its care. In 2019, 978 children went missing from the foster care system.  

In response to this, the U.S. Office of Inspector General conducted a case study in 2021 to determine where Missouri could improve to protect children. But the OIG tells ABC 17 News that two out of three recommendations to protect missing children still remain open. 

The high number of children in foster care leads to extreme workloads for case managers, state officials say. They also have had problems with keeping track of children and other issues.

Meanwhile, children would leave the system of their own volition and end up with family, friends or on the streets, one state official said.

Open recommendation 1: Missouri should identify children who have a heightened risk of going missing and reduce that risk

In response to this recommendation, Missouri updated its Child Welfare Manual in February 2022. It now includes a section about understanding runaway youth and risks for runaway youth. Some of the risks the manual identifies include a history of running away, history of abuse, unsupervised online time and history of substance use. 

The manual states children who run away multiple times are at an increased risk of being involved in human trafficking. 

Abigail Smith, social services unit supervisor for the Boone County Children’s Division, has worked for the county for 10 years. When she was a case manager, she worked with a child who was trafficked. 

“It is heartbreaking to hear the stories from her that she went through and what she had to do to survive,” Smith said. “She got into some bad situations, but when we don't know where they are, we can't do anything, and it is gut-wrenching to know what could be happening to them.” 

Darrell Missey took over as director of the Children’s Division in January 2022, and said there have been noticeable improvements. While he did not have a number of how many children went missing throughout the entire year, he said there is a daily list of children currently on run status. 

“When I started, the number of kids who were missing on a regular basis was over 100,” Missey said. “Right now, a lot of work’s been done and it’s almost always in the 70s or 80s, right now.” 

Smith said currently in the Boone County Children’s Division office, there are no missing children. 

“We’re continuing to work with other partners in the system to try to prevent that from happening, to try to prevent children from going at all,” Missey said. 

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Open recommendation 2: Implement a monitoring mechanism to ensure case managers comply with requirements and document compliance when children are missing and later returned to care

The report states Missouri had policies to locate children, but documentation showed case managers often did not sufficiently follow them.  

In a 2021 Missouri House of Representatives hearing to discuss the OIG report, then-interim Children’s Division Director Joanie Rogers said it wasn’t that workers weren’t trying to find missing children, rather they were just not required to document their efforts. 

In response to this, Missouri has developed a youth-on-the-run protocol and a missing youth status report for staff to track missing youth. These detail what case managers need to do when a child goes missing, including contacting law enforcement, notifying parents and notifying the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and what to do when the child is later located, such as arranging a medical examination, completing a human trafficking assessment and notifying law enforcement and parents. 

“I think it really holds us accountable in order to really try to find these missing kids or these runaways, and not only to find them, but if they return, to make sure that we get them the services they need,” Smith said. 

Missey said the state is already well on its way to addressing the problems identified in the report.

“I think (OIG) should close their report," Missey said in an email. "We have dedicated a full-time person to this problem.  We have worked with our staff to improve documentation in all areas, but with regard to this issue, the Legislature has mandated a lot of additional reporting requirements in Senate Bill 186.  We will be following all of those mandates, and I believe that should resolve any concerns OIG may have.” 

Missouri Senate Bill 186 was signed by Gov. Mike Parson this year and further establishes the steps case managers must take when a child goes missing. 

The OIG says it requests annual updates from Missouri, and when it receives documented evidence Missouri has taken measures to implement all parts of the recommendation, the inspector general will consider the recommendation closed. 

Closed recommendation 3: Improve the case management system to be able to accurately identify children missing from care

The report says notes in case files would show that case managers often knew the status of children but they were not properly documented to allow other workers taking over the case to know where the child was located. 

"What would happen is that children who did not like the system and did not want to be here would vote with their feet," Missey said. "They would say, 'I've had enough of this,' and they would leave. The truth of the matter is, we often had an idea of where they went. They often went home and did so in a clandestine kind of way. They often went to their girlfriend's house or their boyfriend's house. But the difficult thing is that some of them went to the streets, and that is what's really, really concerning."

Missey described the difficulty many foster children end up experiencing.

"The kids who go into foster care are more likely to have mental health problems. They're more likely to to be involved in the criminal justice system. They're less likely to complete their education. They're more likely to suffer from depression. In every aspect, they have it harder," Missey said.

The case management system at the time could not distinguish between children missing from their approved placement but in known, unapproved, places, versus children whose whereabouts were unknown.  

This is the only recommendation from the 2021 OIG report that has been closed. 

More problems and solutions

The report also had two recommendations for the Administration for Children and Families to work with Missouri. The ACF regional office reportedly offered assistance to Rogers in 2021 and Missey in 2022, but was denied both times. Missey said he doesn’t recall any communication from ACF about the report. 

However, there is help on the way. Last month, Parson approved $33.3 million in the state budget to reconstruct and reform the Children’s Division. This will include measures to retain staff and lower the number of kids in foster care. 

Smith said Boone County only has half the case managers it needs. She said case managers currently have around 25 cases each when they should have 15. 

“We can’t do the best job that we should do when we have higher caseloads,” Smith said. 

At the end of June, Missouri had 13,071 foster children in its care, according to the Department of Social Services website. Data shows at the end of May, there were 310 children in Boone County and 165 children in Cole County. 

“We have too many foster kids,” Missey said. “Missouri has nearly double the national average of foster kids per capita.” 

Missey said the state is working on reducing the number of children in care and recruiting more foster homes. Statewide, he said there are around 5,000 homes for the more than 13,000 foster children. In Boone County at the end of May, Smith says there were only 49 homes for the 310 foster children.  

One of those homes is Craig Stevenson and his wife, who have been fostering for eight years. They live in Hallsville and have cared for 16 children.  

“Having lived it for eight years, you see the good, right? You see when families are reunified and you still get to be a part of their life, you see that,” Stevenson said. “And then you see the tragedy and you see the brokenness of what children being taken from their homes does to that child.” 

Coyote Hill is a local organization that works to retain foster parents. Chief Operating Officer Kari Hopkins said she thinks foster care is a solvable problem. 

“I think it’s hyper-local,” Hopkins said. “I think every community has to kind of look at each other and say, ‘These are our kids, these are our most vulnerable humans here, and we have to wrap around them.’” 

Another local agency, the Central Missouri Foster Care and Adoption Association, agreed that fostering is a local issue. President and CEO DeAnna Alonso said she thinks more youth need to go back with family, more people need to foster and more people need to foster and adopt children older than 7 years old. 

“The state of Missouri, if we remove a child from their biological family, we all are responsible for that child as a community,” Alonso said. 

Stevenson said he and his wife’s faith led them to fostering and said the process has given them more grace. He said something a home visit worker once told them has stuck with him all these years. 

“The expectation here is you’re not here to save every kid, that’s not the point,” Stevenson said. “The point is to walk alongside people.” 

Hopkins encourages people interested in fostering to take one step forward, whether that be through volunteering or learning more about the process. 

“(Fostering) is one of the hardest jobs you will ever do, we know that … but it is also one of the most life-giving things anyone will ever do,” Hopkins said. 

Anyone interested in taking the next step can learn more at Coyote Hill and CMFCAA’s websites. 

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Morgan Buresh

Morgan is an evening anchor and reporter who came to ABC 17 News in April 2023.


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