Jennifer Tidball, the acting director of the Department of Social Services, speaks during a press conference at the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City on Jan. 28, 2021 (Photo courtesy of Missouri Governor’s Office)
A federal watchdog found that Missouri failed to sufficiently reduce children’s risk of going missing from the foster care system and frequently failed to notify local and federal authorities they were missing.
A report by the U.S Department of Health Human Services Office of Inspector General issued Thursday found that the Department of Social Services’ Children’s Division policies and case management systems resulted in missed opportunities to prevent foster kids from going missing in the first place.
And when children were found, the state appeared to do little to prevent them from going missing again.
It stressed the importance of addressing the issuing, noting that research has determined missing foster care children often experience adverse outcomes, including heightened risk of being inducted into sex trafficking. According to the report, several children had used drugs, a few became pregnant and one was sex trafficked while missing.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday on the report’s findings.
The review was spurred by concerns Office of Inspector General agents raised through an operation to locate missing children in Missouri. In 2019, 978 children were missing at some point from Missouri foster care, according to the report.
After Office of Inspector General agents, the Department of Justice and local law enforcement were provided with a list children who the state’s case management system listed as missing from care, the task force in August 2019 targeted metro areas and successfully located 23 children.
It was determined 59 children’s case files had evidence of an episode of being missing. Of those, 41 returned to foster care during the review period whereas the remaining 18 had been removed from foster care custody, such as the state ending its legal authority and responsibility to care for them, the report said.
Eighty-three percent of the missing children had prior evidence that would have indicated they faced a higher likelihood of going missing, like those placed in group homes and residential facilities.
But in only a few files did case managers note that, the report found. More than half of the missing children had at least one previous episode of going missing.
In seven cases, case managers took some action to attempt to reduce the risk of going missing, like placing a tracking device on a child’s phone to attempt to locate them in the future and moving them to placements with more secure settings.
Case managers also failed to follow policies requiring notification and outreach following a child’s disappearance.
“Nearly half of the case files contained no evidence of Missouri reporting the children as missing, as required, to either local law enforcement or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children,” the report read.
For 36 out of the 59 cases, or 61 percent, there was no evidence case managers notified adults connected to the child, like parents or juvenile officers, when they went missing.
Without documentation, the state can’t be assured case managers met reporting requirements. And without reports to authorities, those authorities cannot provide assistance, the report read.
“One child who was missing from Missouri foster care was identified as having been sex-trafficked — in as many as four States — while missing,” the report read. “There was no evidence that this child had been reported as missing or that any requirements that could have aided in locating this child were complied with.”
In a response to the report’s recommendations, Jennifer Tidball, the department’s acting director, wrote in a late September email to federal officials that Children’s Division staff have historically had trouble convincing some local law enforcement agencies to accept reports of missing youth, particularly for teens 17 years and older.
That “may have discouraged (Children’s Division) staff from providing appropriate notice or appropriately documenting such notices in the past,” Tidball wrote, noting that alternative protocols had been developed with the Missouri State Highway Patrol to address the issue.
The report identified the state’s case management system as an additional area that needs improvement, noting that it does not have the ability to distinguish between children who are missing and whose whereabouts are unknown versus children in an unauthorized placement that officials are aware of.
“Both types of children appear in Missouri’s system with the status ‘RUN,’” the report read. “This lack of distinction between the two types makes it difficult to determine if a child is truly missing.”
The report noted that the state had requested adding additional status labels to its case management system to better distinguish between the scenarios, but that as of August 2021, “this change had yet to be implemented because of budget constraints.”
Additionally, of the 41 children who returned to foster care after being missing, 32 percent did not have evidence in their case files documenting required health and safety checks.
The critical review that called into question Missouri’s ability to adequately protect vulnerable children comes as state lawmakers have directed their scrutiny on the Department of Social Services handling of reports of abuse and neglect at unlicensed and licensed youth residential facilities, underreporting of findings and layoffs of Children’s Division employees.
At a House Special Committee on Government Oversight hearing earlier this month, Rep. Hannah Kelly, a Mountain Grove Republican, pressed department officials on their implementation of a 2020 state law that aimed to address the number of “uncounted” children under diversion, like those that might be placed temporarily under the care of a relative.
Joanie Rogers, the interim director of the Children’s Division within DSS, said the state fully implemented temporary alternative placement agreements under the law on Aug. 2. Since that time through Sept. 14, there were a total of 198 agreements for 196 children. Guardianships where kids may never enter state care was an example Rogers cited that would not be included.
At a Joint Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect hearing in December, Kelly said she was previously told by the department there were roughly 7,000 to 8,000 “uncounted” children. At the time, Tidball said the state was starting to track them, citing the pandemic as a factor that was hindering the department’s efforts.
Reached Thursday morning, Kelly said she had not yet seen the federal report.
The Office of Inspector General report recommended the state use risk factors to identify children at greater risk of missing from care, even though it is not required to do so.
It also recommended the state increase its use of child advocacy centers, ensure that case managers consistently comply with requirements documenting children who are missing and implement a new case management system to better identify the status of children in foster care.
It noted the state has taken some steps, such as developing a human trafficking policy, training and assessment tools and a checklist for case managers when a child is missing and located.
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