The Kansas City Star recently published news stories and an editorial regarding children in foster care who are missing or have run away. These pieces make numerous assumptions about whether the Kansas Department for Children and Families, or 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. They are often found and returned to the foster care system within a matter of days.
It is unfortunate that the agency and I 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 insight about the children we consider missing: In 92 percent of the cases, they are young people, age 12 and older. They have been removed from the only home they know and placed in an unfamiliar setting. They miss their families, their schools and their communities — and they are eager to find a way to get back to them.
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These teens are not incarcerated or under constant watch. They are typical youths 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. Some children are not accustomed to these things. When they are with a family they don’t know, it is plain to see why some run away.
An estimated 1 percent of youth in Kansas foster care run away. This corresponds with the national average. And while this information may be new to legislators, it is common knowledge among those of us 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. Those steps include almost immediate notification to DCF, law enforcement and the child’s school system. We have staff members 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 — though The Star’s editorial suggests otherwise. The government was never equipped to raise a family. But we do take seriously our obligation to protect children and ensure their well-being.
Phyllis Gilmore is secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families.