A 15-year-old girl is missing and the subject of a police search two months after she disappeared from a residential facility in Anoka County that treats adolescent girls suffering from mental health crises.
The girl, who was a victim of physical and sexual abuse, was supposed to be receiving treatment at the Avanti Center for Girls in Blaine. The 24-bed facility provides residential treatment services for girls ages 13 to 18 who are suffering from depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress, among other mental health disorders.
Instead, the girl absconded from the Avanti Center on July 3 with a person who was unknown to the facility staff, and she remains missing 61 days after her disappearance.
Staff members at the center failed to check the identification of the stranger who picked up the girl, and her disappearance was not reported to police until hours later.
A Blaine Police Department sergeant said that officers continue to search for the girl but that the department had no information about her whereabouts. Officers declined to identify the girl by name.
According to a state investigative report released on Wednesday, the girl has been placed “at significant risk.”
The Minnesota Department of Human Services, which licenses children’s treatment centers, cited a single staff member at Avanti for neglect and ordered the facility to take measures to ensure proper training.
Teresa Lhotka, executive director of Missing Children Minnesota, a nonprofit that supports families of missing children, said the urgency in finding the girl is “extreme,” noting that young people who are in treatment are at a much higher risk of exploitation.
“Children in treatment centers are targeted by people who are looking for vulnerable kids — precisely because they know they are vulnerable,” Lhotka said. “All reasonable resources should be engaged in her search.”
The girl was admitted to the Avanti Center in March. According to state records, she had a history of self-injurious behaviors and a history of being a victim of sexual, physical and emotional abuse.
She left the facility in July on an “off-grounds pass” with a person who was not on the girl’s designated “contact list” of visitors approved by her care team. The stranger, who is described as “blonde, slender and dressed professionally,” loaded the girl’s belongings into a vehicle and drove away.
Later, a staff member who watched the two leave the facility said he or she “forgot” to check the unknown visitor’s identification, state investigators found.
The facility’s video footage from the day of the girl’s disappearance showed the visitor, described as having “long hair pulled back into a bun,” pulling on the front door of the facility, and then walking into the parking lot out of view.
The next afternoon, the girl called the facility and told a counselor that she was with a family member at a lake but that the family member was boating and unable to talk on the phone. The girl agreed to call back when the family member was able to talk, but never did.
‘A vulnerable child’
The girl was reported to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, with a photo and her description.
A spokesman for the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office said the office was unfamiliar with the case and was not involved in the investigation.
“This is serious,” said Roberta Opheim, the state ombudsman for mental health and developmental disabilities. “She is a vulnerable child, and we had an obligation as a state to protect her from harm. Now we don’t even know if she has food, shelter or is being exploited.”
The staff member who failed to check the stranger’s identification was not disqualified from providing services as a result of the neglect. However, Avanti completed an internal review and found that policies and procedures were not followed. The staff member had been properly trained and is no longer working at the facility, the center said.
In addition, the facility changed its visiting policy so that residents are picked up at a designated location every time. The facility also has provided additional training to staff members, state records show.
The incident comes just a few months after a 25-year-old male caregiver was accused of sexually abusing a teenage girl at a 12-bed children’s residential treatment center in Minnetonka, known as Nexus Glen Lake.
The Avanti Center is owned and operated by Volunteers of America of Minnesota, a nonprofit that provides residential treatment for more than 230 children and young people at four residential treatment centers in the Twin Cities area.
“We’re confident that we have the right procedures in place,” said Jeff Smith, a spokesman for Volunteers of America, in a written statement.
“Avanti regularly reviews its visitation procedures that require careful logs about when residents come and go and who picks them up. We also provide recurring training to staff persons regarding procedures for visitors.”