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Missouri child welfare agency reports success locating hundreds of missing foster kids

A child leaving into green pastures. Foster kids. Missing kids. Runaway.
Isabel Seliger
Special to NPR
A child leaving into green pastures. Foster kids. Missing kids. Runaway.

A Missouri investigative team has helped locate 628 foster kids this year who were missing from state custody, lawmakers were informed this week.

A state investigative team has helped locate 628 foster kids this year who were missing from state custody in Missouri, state lawmakers were informed at a House budget hearing Monday.

That effort began officially in 2022, after the Department of Social Services was under fire for the high number of children in foster care who had gone missing. Since then, the team has helped locate more than 1,200 missing foster children, said Frank Tennant, director of Missouri State Technical Assistance Team — the law enforcement agency within the state’s social services department that works on child maltreatment issues and has focused on locating missing foster kids over the last few years.

“We have been so successful that we have been approached by the Missouri State Highway Patrol,” said Tennant — to help with their list of missing kids, too.

He cited the team’s success using tools like social media to locate children.

“There’s been several cases where they’ve gone out, found kids, got them back to where they needed to be and back in care to where they’re safe and secure,” Tennant told lawmakers.

There are 74 missing foster kids as of Monday morning, Tennant said, though the state could not immediately make available comparable data over time.

State Rep. John Black, R-Webster, who chairs the social services appropriations subcommittee in the Missouri House, said he “appreciate[s]” hearing about the department’s successes along with the budget information.

“This can be a circumstance where good things that happen can get lost in numbers,” Black said. “And so we want the committee to be able to understand some things that the department is pleased about.”

A 2021 federal watchdog report found there were 1,780 instances of foster kids going missing in Missouri from July 2018 to December 2020, spurring lawmakers’ scrutiny.

There were 978 children missing at some point from Missouri foster care in 2019.

Part of the issue was that the state’s system couldn’t distinguish between missing kids and kids whose location was known but unauthorized — which they said has been since fixed. The monthly data the agency publishes still combines both categories, spokesperson Caitlin Whaley said.

In 2022, a program called the Unaccounted for Foster Children went into effect in Missouri to help find children missing from state care and custody. Roughly 600 children were located and returned to state care last year, according to data included in the state budget.

In many states, overburdened caseworkers have been hard-pressed to protect all the children they are responsible for monitoring — and when kids go missing, caseworkers often struggle to prevent it from happening again, Stateline reported this year.

Robert Knodell, director of the Department of Social Services, said during another discussion that staffing issues department-wide have improved since COVID but haven’t rebounded entirely.

“We’re filling positions at a higher rate today than we have since prior. So, we are having success,” he said. “But we’ve got a long way to go. We have a less experienced workforce than we’ve historically had.”

Copyright 2023 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Clara Bates covers social services and poverty for The Missouri Independent. She previously wrote for the Nevada Current, where she reported on labor violations in casinos, hurdles facing applicants for unemployment benefits and lax oversight of the funeral industry. She also wrote about vocational education for Democracy Journal. Bates is a graduate of Harvard College and is a Report for America corps member.
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