What a horrific thought. It happens. It shouldn’t happen but it does.. A child who goes missing and isn’t found if one of the worst tragedies. Lack of closure can haunt a parent of a missing child for the rest of their life.
Tens of thousands of children the foster system has lost –
Remembering the forgotten children.
More than 60,000 kids across the country are unaccounted for by the child welfare system that is supposed to protect them.
The public has exploded in outrage at American immigration authorities’ treatment of children in recent months, but meanwhile there are tens of thousands of other children who are unaccounted for in this country: the more than 60,000 foster children who have gone missing.
A review of federal records by investigative reporters Eric Rasmussen and Erin Smith revealed in May that child welfare agencies throughout the country have closed the cases of at least 61,000 foster children listed as “missing” since 2000. An additional 53,000 were listed as “runaway.” Their investigation aligns with other reports of children missing from various states — 80 currently missing in Kansas, hundreds lost in Florida. Against the scandal of migrant children unaccounted for is another scandal: that our nation has lost track of so many of its own.
Just how did 60,000 of these children disappear? Blame a lack of federal oversight, underfunded agencies straining under almost half a million children, high caseworker turnover — in some jurisdictions, staff turnover is as high as 90 percent a year — and a chilling indifference to the plight of foster children.
In Arizona and other states, children who are missing for six months are dropped from the foster care rolls. A “missing” foster child is not necessarily on the streets; some are safe with a foster family or relative, and even though the state has lost track of them, they aren’t being harmed. But the point is that the state has no idea. In one case in Illinois, workers closed the case of a 9-year-old child who had disappeared. It took investigators a year to locate her, but she was alive. In Florida, a 4-year-old girl was missing for 15 months before anyone from the Department of Children and Families noticed. Her foster parent is in prison in her killing.
Lara B. Sharp, a successful writer who grew up in foster care, says that of the foster children she knew, “all went either missing or they died, mostly before age 18.” Sharp told me of three different times workers misplaced her. This happened when she was moved from one home to another, and no one updated her file. Had she been kidnapped or run away during these times, no one would have known. She would have fallen through cracks in the system so wide they are canyons.
The outcome for this negligence can be deadly. Sharp recalls a girl she lived with named Jennifer, who had lost her parent in a car accident. When she was 15, Jennifer went missing. She ended up sex trafficked and murdered. “She was a lovely, kind, clever, sheltered little girl,” Sharp says. “She loved the Bronte sisters and The Brady Bunch. I will never forget her.”
But our government has forgotten thousands of children like Jennifer. No one seems to know where these children are or how they vanished. In many cases, they are assumed to be runaways. In Texas last year, 1,700 foster children were declared runaways. Of these, 245 are currently missing. And they are at profound risk.
“Most of the children who are being bought and sold for sex in our nation are foster care children,” human rights attorney Malika Saada Saar writes. “Our very broken foster care system has become a supply chain to traffickers.” In one of many examples, a national FBI raid to recover child sex-trafficking victims found that 60 percent of the children came from foster care.
I asked human rights worker Quintan Wikswo why the recent case of missing immigrant children sparked outrage, but thousands of vanished foster children have not.
“It’s easier for partisan politics to use the immigrant children disappearances as fuel for whatever case they want to make,” Wikswo says. “But it is far more unpopular for folks to look into their own communities, to get involved in their own local judicial and law enforcement elections, and ask for documentation that their representatives are prioritizing the foster network.”