Government & Politics

Lawmakers shocked to learn 70-plus children missing from Kansas’ foster care system

Three sisters — Emily, 15, Aimee, 14, and Christin Utter, 12 — have been missing from their Tonganoxie foster home since Aug. 26.
Three sisters — Emily, 15, Aimee, 14, and Christin Utter, 12 — have been missing from their Tonganoxie foster home since Aug. 26.

In a revelation that shocked lawmakers, the companies running the state’s foster care system said Tuesday that more than 70 foster children are missing in Kansas.

Lawmakers also were furious that Phyllis Gilmore, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, appeared unaware that three sisters have been missing from a northeast Kansas foster home since Aug. 26.

Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, told a child welfare task force meeting that when she asked DCF about the missing children on Tuesday, the agency knew nothing.

“I am flabbergasted,” Kelly said afterward. “I used to work in this world years and years ago and I understand that where you have teenagers, you will have runners, and they will go and they will do this kind of stuff.

“But the fact that the person in charge of the wards of the state has no idea that these kids are missing from her custody is just astounding to me.”

After the meeting, Gilmore said she could not discuss the three missing sisters who police think fled their foster home in Tonganoxie. Emily, 15, Aimee, 14, and Christin Utter, 12, have been missing for 45 days.

The Star reported on their case earlier Tuesday, prompting Kelly to question Gilmore and others.

“You heard everyone expressing that it is extremely concerning and worrisome, especially when many of them are teenage girls in the light of the issues surrounding human trafficking,” Gilmore said.

But she also said that in many cases children have left to go back to their biological families or other people with whom they have a relationship to get out of foster care. Gilmore referred to one task force member’s comment that at times children who have fled will call to say they are safe but won’t say where they are.

“So it isn’t always a tragedy, but some certainly can be and that’s why we have to take it all very seriously,” Gilmore said.

KVC Kansas, one of the foster care contractors, said it has roughly 38 missing children. The other company, Saint Francis Community Services, said 36 are missing in its system.

Chad Anderson, chief clinical officer at KVC Kansas, one of the contractors, told the child welfare task force that the number of missing represented about 1 percent of the foster care population and is in line with the national average.

Still, he acknowledged the contractor could do a better job.

“I don’t know that we as contractors have shared as much in terms of missing youth and the day to day as we probably should,” Anderson said.

Rep. Linda Gallagher, a Lenexa Republican, said she was shocked at the number of missing children. Even if the number missing is in line with the national average, she said, it is still too many.

She also said it was “unbelievable” that Gilmore didn’t know about the missing sisters.

“The secretary should know all the time if we have any kids that are missing from the system. She should be notified and should be aware of all efforts being made to locate them,” Gallagher said.

Anderson said the contractors update DCF every 30 days on the missing children.

Rep. Steve Alford, a Ulysses Republican who chairs the task force, said after the meeting he wasn’t really surprised.

“There’s a break between DCF and the contracting,” he said. “Once the children ... (go from the court) into the possession of the secretary, she hands them off to the contractors and it’s their responsibility, you know, it’s kind of like out of sight, out of mind in a lot of aspects.”

This is the second meeting of a state child welfare task force has produced revelations concerning to lawmakers. At a meeting in September, the foster care contractors disclosed that children stayed overnight in the contractors’ offices more than 100 times over the past year because places able or willing to accept them couldn’t be found.

The Star’s Max Londberg contributed to this report

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw