Kansas Foster Care Instability Led To Surge In Runaways, Left Children Vulnerable To Sex Traffickers
At first, they wanted to save her.
Then, after she fled the Kansas foster care system at age 16 and fell victim to the commercial sex trade, social workers told her she was going to prison forever.
"When I went into foster care and they wanted to take me away from my family, I ran," she said. "I ran away, and that's how I really started to get into all of this trouble. After I ran away, that's when they started treating me like, 'Oh, you're a suspect and you're not innocent.'
"They never asked me why. It was just, 'You're a bad girl.' "
Now 18, she spent 14 months in prison for her involvement in a human trafficking ring. Other girls who passed through the care of the Kansas Department for Children and Families also were exploited and locked up.
Kansas added thousands of children to the state foster care system as former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and his appointed DCF secretary, Phyllis Gilmore, imposed policies that reduced aid to struggling families. The number of children who went missing nearly doubled in a three-year period as the scarcity of long-term homes created severe instability that plagued the foster care system.
Social workers and researchers say those who run away from foster care are vulnerable to sex traffickers who want to exploit them — especially teenage girls who crave a connection as they struggle to process trauma.
Karen Countryman-Roswurm, director of the Center for Combating Human Trafficking at Wichita State University, is advocating within the legal system for 13 girls who ran away from DCF or state custody in recent years and ended up incarcerated for crimes related to human trafficking. The girls never should have been charged, Countryman-Roswurm said, because they were victims who were under the control of a sex trafficker.
“We’re seeing an increase in the criminalization of the very populations that we intended to serve, largely because people only know enough about trafficking to be dangerous,” Countryman-Roswurm said.
Personal accounts from three of those 13 girls affirm the failings of the Kansas foster care system and the lasting effects on their well-being. The Topeka Capital-Journal and KCUR generally don't identify victims of sexual abuse, and survivors of sex trafficking who were interviewed for this story asked not to be named because they fear retaliation from law enforcement, probation officers and other state officials.
"A lot of victims, they don't say anything and they just burn inside because no one cares to even ask," said one of the survivors, a 17-year-old girl. "When someone asks you about what really happened and they really empathize and they really show you that they care, then that's when people speak up about the issue. All it takes is for one person that asks you, 'Are you OK?' or, 'What's wrong?' "
Child advocates are cautious about whether changes taking place under the administration of Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat who took office in January, can help repair a broken system. DCF in May, responding to outrage over the number of kids lost by the foster care system during the Brownback years, launched a 10-member special response team tasked with preventing, recovering and engaging runaway children.
Kelly said the child protection system under former leadership at DCF was broken. The governor selected Laura Howard, a veteran of social welfare work who received bipartisan support from the Legislature, to oversee restoration of a system in crisis.
“Time and time again, children fell through the cracks,” Kelly said. “Over the past eight years, we saw countless children who fell victim to their circumstances who were subsequently victimized again by a failed system and incompetent leadership. I have charged secretary Howard with putting in place safeguards so that this does not happen again. We owe that to these kids.”
Child advocates and legislators, including then-Sen. Kelly, were disturbed to learn during an October 2017 hearing about escalating numbers of youths who had run away from the child welfare system.
They were stunned by the revelation Gilmore didn’t know some of the children were missing. Gilmore, who would announce her retirement three weeks later, explained the overall rate of runaways was in line with the national average of 1% of the total population of foster kids.
Benet Magnuson, executive director of the Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, was troubled by Gilmore’s leadership and damage inflicted across the child welfare system. Last year, his organization filed a class action lawsuit alleging DCF is putting kids in danger.
Magnuson said problems in foster care are linked to steep cuts to social welfare programs because those cuts hurt struggling families. Data tracked by Kansas Appleseed show the state during Brownback’s administration lowered annual expenses for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by $142.9 million. The state cut $38.9 million in annual costs from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and $32.6 million from the Child Care Assistance Program.
Changes to the budget in 2016 reduced annual funding for community health centers by $30 million and lowered Medicaid reimbursement rates by 4%.
“After pushing those families over the edge,” Magnuson said, “the state takes custody of those kids, and after taking custody of the kids subjects them to a dangerously extreme placement instability, denies them mental health services, and then when those traumatized kids fairly predictably run away, Kansas criminalizes them.
“To say it shocks the conscience would be an understatement. This really strikes at the moral foundation of who we are as a state."
The volume of children in the Kansas foster care system swelled from 5,214 in fiscal year 2011, when Brownback took office, to 7,484 in the most recent fiscal year, which ended July 1 — a 43.5% increase.
An investigation by The Capital-Journal and KCUR found the rate of runaways surged as the addition of more children in foster care overwhelmed child placement contractors.
DCF tracks the number of children who can’t be accounted for each day and produces monthly and yearly averages. The average number of runaways at any point in time for fiscal year 2015 was 46, or 0.74% of the 6,257 children within the system. By fiscal year 2018, the average number of runaways was 81, or 1.1% of the 7,371 kids in foster care.
One of the runaways, now 21, already was being exploited for sex when she entered DCF custody at age 13. For her, the foster care system felt endless.
"It was really hard for me to stop running away or follow what they say," she said, "because it wasn't like these are your goals and then when you complete these goals you're good and you're going to go home. It wasn't like that. It was like ... you're never going to go home, and we're going to keep you forever."
She was charged with sex trafficking at age 17 and incarcerated for two years.
DCF in fiscal year 2016 introduced a new metric for the placement stability of children within the foster care system. Monthly reports track the number of times a child changes location from one home to the next. The rate is reflected as the number of moves per 1,000 days in foster care.
The nationwide performance standard for placement stability is 4.12 moves per 1,000 days. In 2016, the statewide rate in Kansas was 6.6. By 2019, the rate had climbed to 9.7. All of the children within the system, on average, are changing homes every three and a half months.
Vickie McArthur, clinical director for reintegration, foster care and adoption at Saint Francis Ministries, which provides child placement services in Kansas, said the rapid influx of children who needed a place to stay created instability because organizations like hers struggled to recruit and sustain long-term homes.
"There's some bouncing that happens,” McArthur said. “What that means, by what we term ‘bouncing,’ is that they're going from emergency home to emergency home night after night. You do that for a little while, and the youths say: 'We're done. We're not doing this. We could take better care of ourselves on the street.'"
Life is risky for a runaway. McArthur said some of the children have street survival skills by the time they arrive in foster care, but these children know how to cope because they can disassociate with what they have to do to survive.
“I can't even put a number on the youths that have been involved in what has traditionally been known as survival sex, when you are trading yourself for a bed in a house so that I'm not sleeping outside in the cold or the rain,” McArthur said. “That oftentimes can lead to, ‘OK, for you to continue to stay here, now you need to exchange sex with my friends and they'll pay me.’ "
Tanya Keys, deputy DCF secretary tasked with addressing the runaway issue, has a point of view different from the one Gilmore expressed at the 2017 hearing. For Keys, one missing child is too many.
"We know that for youths who have instability, if they are not able to stay somewhere more than one night, that can create a greater likelihood of a run behavior because they're not feeling — perhaps, as they define it — they're not feeling that connection,” Keys said. “They're not getting their needs met, or maybe they don't feel safe by staying someplace different every night. So they are more likely to run."
‘Fighting by myself’
The 17-year-old survivor of sex exploitation, who was taken away from her alcoholic mother at age 10, was offered a series of plea deals for aggravated human trafficking when she was 15 years old. The first offer from prosecutors was 15 years in prison.
The girl struggled to navigate her legal options within the confines of juvenile detention, where she couldn't contact her mentors. She was discouraged from calling her mother, who was hospitalized with illness.
"My mom ended up passing away while I was in jail," she said. "So afterward, I just was fighting by myself and I just said that, you know, I'm tired and I have nobody else to advocate for me. I don't know the legal system. I don't know what to do anymore, and I couldn't talk to anybody."
She eventually agreed to a deal that would keep her in jail for two years, then require her to register as a sex offender.
McArthur said many children end up in foster care because they experienced trauma at home. Just being taken away from a parent is traumatic, McArthur said, but most of the children in foster care have enough protective factors surrounding them to help absorb trauma without impacting their day-to-day functions.
Others, perhaps 20%, McArthur said, “do not have a clue how to absorb the trauma that they have walked through."
Human traffickers know what to look for.
"Movies have portrayed that a child is taken off of the street or kidnapped in a white van by a gorilla pimp and beaten into submission,” McArthur said. “That happens. Don't get me wrong, that does happen. But sometimes for our youths that's not what's happening. They get themselves into these very vulnerable situations without even realizing it until they're in too late — and then can move into the exploiter having the youth find other youths that are similar to them that need a place to stay.
“It can be very subtle and very seductive to a youth who is just trying to survive on the street. So our runaway population, we are very aware, are much more vulnerable to being caught or invited into human trafficking."
Keys said 10 children who entered the Kansas foster care system last year were victims of human trafficking.
Other cases of human trafficking within the foster care system were investigated through tips placed at the Kansas child protection call center. Keys said 45,000 reports are assigned based on calls to the center each year, with 0.4%, or fewer than 200, relating to commercial sex exploitation.
When a child runs away, the state is required to notify law enforcement within two hours. The state sends a photo and contact information for parents and friends to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children within 24 hours.
Social workers also notify the school and family. Members of the special response team ensure rigorous, daily outreach, including the use of social media tools.
Children who are located are placed in a safe location, which could be with a friend or family member, a street outreach program or an emergency shelter. Under federal guidelines, the child is given a health assessment, as well as a human trafficking assessment.
McArthur said social workers will want to know what the recovered children were doing and where they stayed when on the run. Who were they connected with? What happened to them? Were they running from something or to someone, like a boyfriend, friend or parent?
"A lot of kiddos do not tell us upfront what's gone on and if they are under the control of someone else who is trafficking them,” McArthur said. “Their exterior can become very crusty and suspicious, so they don't share. And there are some loyalty binds that they get themselves into as the trafficker begins to demand more and more loyalty of them."
‘It’s not surprising’
McArthur said the impulse to rebel is inherent in teenagers and a part of adolescent development.
Children in foster care may struggle to follow or learn the rules of a new home. Restrictions could include when they can watch TV, how long they stay out at night, what they wear to school, acceptable hairstyles, or what they eat.
"We bring them out of the home, put them into child welfare, and we then begin to control everything,” McArthur said. “So the child response to that is much like a 2-year-old when you tell them no. They want to explore. They want to have some freedom, which is totally appropriate."
Keys, the DCF official, said foster kids — “like all of us” — have a desire to connect. They may feel unsafe. The children who run away, she said, are trying to solve a problem, such as a conflict at school or with a caregiver. Those who enter the system at ages 16 and 17 are more at risk.
“The older the age that you enter foster care,” Keys said, “the more likely you are to have placement instability."
Amy Dworsky, a research fellow with Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago whose work is focused on child welfare services and strategies to improve outcomes, said the instability foster kids experience in Kansas is concerning.
"That's a lot of change in a young person's life,” Dworsky said. “And I mean, just thinking about it developmentally, it's not surprising that young people would be running from that type of circumstance."
Dworksy has identified warning signs for youths who may be inclined to run away from foster care. States that perform a flight risk assessment as children enter the foster care system have lower rates of runaways, she said.
In addition to the age of a child, race and gender matter. Dworsky’s research has found that African American and Hispanic youths are more likely to run away than youths who are white, and girls are more likely to run away than boys.
The odds of running away are higher for children placed in group homes, where they may become easy targets for human traffickers. Group homes tend to have constant changes in staff, Dworsky said, and there is no single person who is always there for a child, like there would be with a foster parent.
The staff at group homes also tend to be underpaid and overworked, Dworsky said.
"If there's going to be a lot of cuts in services, then, yeah, people's needs are not going to be met,” Dworsky said. “So I'm thinking of needs like mental health, substance abuse — those kinds of service needs. And if those needs are not being met, young people are going to run because, 'Why am I going to stay here? No one's taking care of me.' "
Keys believes Kansas’ new special response team, which includes two full-time employees at DCF and eight grant-based positions with partners across the state, can make a difference. The team was conceived last year when Gina Meier-Hummel served as DCF secretary under former Gov. Jeff Colyer, a Republican who took over in February 2018 when Brownback left to become the U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom.
The response team’s work includes finding out what is important to children in state care. The children might be motivated by a class in school or a job they like, for example.
Children who are motivated, Keys said, feel safe, connected, “and maybe not as lonely.”
In April, the number of runaways was in the 90s. Now, the number of children in state care who can’t be accounted for is below 60.
"Certainly, we do feel the gravity and want all children and youths, young persons, to feel safe and that they have access to the support they need,” Keys said. “So we look forward to continued improvement. We do feel the responsibility and understand the responsibility."
‘I’m a human’
John Wilson, of the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children, said the Brownback administration didn’t take the time to look at the data and enlist research experts who could help make the best policy decisions.
"Kids are being taken away, for all intents and purposes, for being poor,” Wilson said. “They don't have enough to split among the household. It gets so stressful that they make terrible choices, but some of them are impossible choices they have to make.
“The state does not make a great parent, and we need to do all that we can to keep kids with their families while also keeping them safe. One of the best ways to do that is to make sure basic needs are met for those families."
Wilson said the best steps the state could take moving forward would include increased access to family support programs that help people pay for food, pay their bills, and put their kids in child care.
Magnuson, of Kansas Appleseed, said he hasn’t seen enough progress under the new administration.
"This is not an exaggeration: Every day, I get at least one email from a foster parent, a foster kid, a social worker, wanting to talk about the terrible thing that they are experiencing, that they're seeing right now in the foster care system,” Magnuson said.
Kimberly Bender, a professor at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work whose research is focused on homeless youths, said there is no quick fix.
Children who are removed from parents need to enter a system where caretakers will get to know them and help them feel safe, Bender said. The children instead enter systems constrained by time and resources. They are disconnected from social networks and meet strangers who take advantage of them.
“Those with power, including funders and administrators, need to structure systems so that young people are truly known for who they are and engaged as partners in setting and reaching their own goals,” Bender said. “Providers need the time and flexibility to do the work in the way they know they need to, in a way that sees young people as individuals with aspirations and potential rather than problems to be fixed.”
Howard, the DCF secretary, said efforts to keep children safe will require dedicated and steadfast resources across local and state agencies.
“Engaging youth and creating safe networks of adequate support systems and resources around a child and their family is essential,” Howard said. “At DCF, our workforce is determined to learn more, with help from community and national experts of youth engagement, to better understand approaches that best serve young people in these circumstances.”
McArthur said social workers in Kansas are trying to equip foster children with the ability to recognize and value a healthy relationship.
“You have to remember,” McArthur said, “a lot of these youths do not have the experience that, ‘Adults will take care of me. So then I go out on the street. I've got somebody who may be buying me some pretty nice clothes that I've always wanted and never got to have. I've got food in my belly. I get to get high or on drugs whenever I want to.’
“So some of it is breaking through that whole cognitive scheme that, ‘This is how I am taken care of,’ or, ‘This is all that I deserve because of the experiences I've had in my life.’ We really have to work hard with lots of cognitive behavioral processes that then begin to start allowing that child to see themselves in a different light."
One of the survivors of sex trafficking, the 17-year-old who spent two years in juvenile lockup, wants to be seen in a different light, but most people view her as a perpetrator.
"Be open minded and have a heart," she said. "See this through as if I was one of your own kids. Treat me like I'm a human. Don't treat me like I'm just an ‘it.’ "
This story is part of a partnership between KCUR and the Topeka Capital-Journal, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in collaboration with APM Reports, the investigative reporting unit of American Public Media.
Sherman Smith is a reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He’s on Twitter at @sherman_news.
Peggy Lowe is a reporter at KCUR. She’s on Twitter @peggyllowe.
Geoff Hing of APM Reports contributed to this story. He's on Twitter at @geoffhing.