The public exploded in outrage at the news in April: Federal agencies had lost track of nearly 1,500 migrant children. These were kids who had shown up at the border unaccompanied, most of them from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and were placed with sponsors. But the Office of Refugee Resettlement was unable to determine the current whereabouts of 1,475 of the 7,635 children who had been placed last year. Members of Congress said the children had been thrown to the wolves; they held rallies. Twitter groaned under the anger of thousands of users who expressed shock that this had been allowed to happen, many of them mistakenly noting that these kids had been taken from their parents.
Later reporting clarified that these children had arrived alone at the border, and that their adult sponsors were often relatives (85 percent were placed with parents or close family members) who may have been deliberately not responding to agency attempts to contact them.
Meanwhile, there are thousands of other children who are unaccounted for in this country — more than 60,000 foster children who have gone missing.
A review of federal records by investigative reporters Eric Rasmussen and Erin Smith revealed in May that child welfare agencies throughout the country have closed the cases of at least 61,000 foster children listed as “missing” since 2000. An additional 53,000 were listed as “runaway.” Their investigation aligns with other reports of children missing from various states — 80 currently missing in Kansas, hundreds lost in Florida. Against the scandal of migrant children unaccounted for is another scandal: that our nation has lost track of so many of its own.
For more than 20 years, I’ve been a foster parent. I’ve taken in babies and teenagers. I’ve opened my door to a child holding a garbage bag full of their belongings, loved children through their losses and felt my own heart blossom as they healed. Some have stayed while others have moved on. Just how did 60,000 of these children disappear?
Blame a lack of federal oversight, underfunded agencies straining under almost half a million children, high caseworker turnover — in some jurisdictions, staff turnover is as high as 90 percent a year — and a chilling indifference to the plight of foster children.
In Arizona and other states, children who are missing for six months are dropped from the foster care rolls. A “missing” foster child is not necessarily on the streets; some are safe with a foster family or relative, and even though the state has lost track of them, they aren’t being harmed. But the point is that the state has no idea. In one case in Illinois, workers closed the case of a 9-year-old child who had disappeared. It took investigators a year to locate her, but she was alive. In Florida, a 4-year-old girl was missing for 15 months before anyone from the Department of Children & Families noticed. Her foster parent is in prison in her killing.
Lara B. Sharp, a successful writer who grew up in foster care, says that of the foster children she knew, “all went either missing or they died, mostly before age 18.” Sharp told me of three different times workers misplaced her. This happened when she was moved from one home to another and no one updated her file. Had she been kidnapped or run away during these times, no one would have known. She would have fallen through cracks in the system so wide they are canyons.
The outcome for this negligence can be deadly. Sharp recalls a girl she lived with named Jennifer, who had lost her parent in a car accident. When she was 15, Jennifer went missing. She ended up sex trafficked and murdered. “She was a lovely, kind, clever, sheltered little girl,” Sharp says. “She loved the Bronte sisters and ‘The Brady Bunch.’ I will never forget her.”
But our government has forgotten thousands of children like Jennifer. No one seems to know where these children are or how they vanished. (One Kansas state lawmaker said she was “flabbergasted” when she asked the Department for Children and Families for information on the disappearance of three sisters from foster care, and the agency knew nothing.) In many cases, they are assumed to be runaways. In Texas last year, 1,700 foster children were declared runaways. Of these, 245 are currently missing. And they are at profound risk.
“Most of the children who are being bought and sold for sex in our nation are foster care children,” human rights attorney Malika Saada Saar writes. “Our very broken foster care system has become a supply chain to traffickers.” In one of many examples, a national FBI raid to recover child sex-trafficking victims found that 60 percent of the children came from foster care. According to Rasmussen and Smith’s reporting, a 15-year-old girl who was missing from foster care in New York turned up at a Boston nonprofit for homeless kids, seeking help. Workers determined that she had been put in a prostitution ring.
I asked human rights worker Quintan Wikswo why the recent case of missing immigrant children sparked outrage, but thousands of vanished foster children have not.
“It’s easier for partisan politics to use the immigrant children disappearances as fuel for whatever case they want to make,” Wikswo says. “But it is far more unpopular for folks to look into their own communities, to get involved in their own local judicial and law enforcement elections and ask for documentation that their representatives are prioritizing the foster network.”
Sharp agrees, adding that negative stereotypes of foster youth make it hard for the public to relate. “I’m now a happily married adult, a Smith College graduate and someone who has always chosen to abstain from all drugs and alcohol,” she says. “But our entertainment industry has a propensity to portray foster youth as criminals.”
My foster children are just as funny, silly, hopeful, smart and lovable as any other kids. It is not their fault they are in foster care — they are the victims of societal failures. Children enter foster care because their parents are experiencing poverty, incarceration, deportation or facing addictions or mental health struggles. They — and their birth families — deserve to know that their time in the system will be safe. And no children should fear that if they go missing, no one will try to find them.
Rene Denfeld is the author of “The Child Finder.” She wrote this article for the Washington Post.