Authorities this week found a youth who had vanished from the state’s foster care system more than 300 days ago.
Scores are still missing, including one described as an older teenager who has been gone for more than two years.
The number of runaway foster children in Kansas fell slowly during the first few years of the Brownback administration, but it has more than doubled in the past two years.
And while the number of missing children remains a small percentage of the number of foster children, Kansas lawmakers are expressing outrage and calling for action.
Some children are found quickly, within a day or two. Others stay missing for weeks and months.
“Here we have kids who have had a lot of trauma in their lives. They might not like the rules; they might be addicted to substances,” said Christie Appelhanz, director of the Children’s Alliance of Kansas. “... While I don’t think it’s right that they run, it’s certainly not surprising to people who understand trauma.”
The question that lawmakers began asking this week: Is Kansas’ social service agency doing enough to find missing children as quickly as possible?
At a hearing Tuesday, legislators said they were shocked to learn that more than 70 Kansas foster children were missing.
The Department for Children and Families, which oversees the state’s privatized foster care system, noted that the number was not unusual and amounted to about 1 percent of children in the system.
That didn’t satisfy some lawmakers.
“If that from the department’s sense is an OK number — the 1 percent stated, if that’s acceptable, if that’s within tolerance — what are we doing about it?” said Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat. “Where are these kids at? Who’s looking out for these kids?”
The missing children are just the latest controversy for the Department for Children and Families, which has been hit with harsh audits and criticism from lawmakers during Secretary Phyllis Gilmore’s tenure.
Some lawmakers and a Republican candidate for governor are calling on her to resign. Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, is calling for creation of an Amber Alert-type system for missing foster children.
“I want to hammer out a protocol that gets activated immediately upon knowledge of a missing foster care kid,” Kelly said Friday.
When Gov. Sam Brownback entered office in January 2011, monthly reports put the number of runaways at about 70. The number slowly trended down, reaching 37 in October 2015.
But since then, the numbers have grown. In August 2017, the latest month for which DCF data are available, 86 children were listed as runaways. That’s an increase of 132 percent in the past two years, while the number of foster children overall has risen by 13 percent.
The Department for Children and Families said in a statement that the issue of foster children running away is not unique to Kansas, and the state’s percentage of missing foster children correlates with the national average.
The agency also outlined procedures for these situations. Those steps include filing a missing person report, according to DCF, and notifying the court of the child’s missing status.
“These children who run away are not under lock and key; they are generally in family foster homes, older youth, who attend school and activities, and they often miss their biological families,” Gilmore said in the statement.
“We work closely with our foster care contractors, law enforcement, the school system and affected families to locate missing children as quickly as possible.”
KVC Kansas, one of Kansas’ two foster care contractors, said Tuesday it had 38 missing children. The other company, Saint Francis Community Services, said that same day that 36 were missing in its system.
Saint Francis responded to questions from McClatchy later in the week and noted that as of Wednesday, its number of missing kids had fallen to 31. KVC’s number remained at 38.
The foster child who this week had been missing the longest with Saint Francis, roughly 310 days, was found Wednesday, the contractor said Friday. It said it could not provide details about the case.
For KVC, the longest current missing case is “an older teenager close to aging out” who has been missing for more than two years, the company said.
KVC said 28 of its missing children are female and 10 are male. The average age is 16.
Of the 31 children missing from Saint Francis, 14 are female, 17 are male and the average age is 16.
“Some miss their families and want to return to their biological parents,” Saint Francis said. “Some have challenges with addiction. But we don’t stop looking for any of the kids who are missing.”
Missouri also has missing children, though currently at a lower percentage than Kansas.
The Missouri Children’s Division said Friday that as of Sept. 30, 83 children in its custody were missing out of more than 13,400 children. Almost all of those missing, 81, fell between the ages of 14 to 21.
Tim Decker, the director of the Children’s Division, called it a concerning and complex issue.
“I don’t take any comfort in being at the national average, or below the national average,” Decker said. “I’ll take more comfort when we don’t have any kids anymore that are missing.”
Troubled Teen Help, an organization that provides resources for parents, estimates that about one in seven children between 10 and 18 will run away at least once. The National Runaway Safeline says between 1.6 and 2.8 million run away each year.
The disruption of the foster system may make a child even more likely to run.
“All leave — and return — for different reasons,” Saint Francis said. “Most children are ultimately found to have been staying with friends or family.”
Still, runaways are at risk.
“A child who has run away from home is in danger,” the Kansas Bureau of Investigation warns in its missing persons brochure.
Rep. Linda Gallagher, a Lenexa Republican, said she is worried because Kansas is known to be a crossroads for human trafficking.
“The possibility that some of these children could be ending up being trafficked and therefore going from one bad situation to an even worse situation, that’s just a real concern,” she said.
Theresa Freed, a spokeswoman for the Department for Children and Families, said in an email this week that 92 percent of the children considered missing are ages 12 and older.
“Those under 12, in many cases, are considered on the run with a parent,” Freed said in the email. “The parent may be hiding the child from coming into State care. These cases are not referred to the contractors, as this happens prior to the child coming into State care.”
Calls for change
Mark Hutton, a GOP candidate for governor and former state lawmaker, on Friday called for a leadership change at DCF.
In a statement, Hutton’s campaign described Gilmore’s tenure as “increasingly defined by a total lack of accountability and a near endless stream of failures affecting foster children, at-risk youth, and children facing abuse in their home environments.”
“It is time for accountability in our state government,” Hutton said. “The continued failures at the Department for Children and Families are unacceptable, with the most vulnerable among us paying the price, and it’s time that the Brownback-Colyer administration do something about it.”
McClatchy sought comment from a spokeswoman for Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, who is expected to become governor in a matter of weeks once Brownback departs for the Trump administration. But his office did not issue a statement.
Some Democrats have long called for Gilmore to step down from the Department for Children and Families, including Ousley.
He said he sat on the House Children and Seniors Committee for two years and listened to how “everything was fine.”
But it wasn’t, actually, he said.
“This is a basic human decency thing,” Ousley said, “to take care of the kids that don’t have anyone to take care of them.”