National Opinions

Other missing-children scandal: U.S. foster kids


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.

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 happened. Later reporting clarified that the adult sponsors were often relatives (85 percent were placed with parents or close family members) who may have been deliberately not responding to attempts to contact them.

Meanwhile, there are thousands of other children unaccounted for in this country — more than 60,000 foster children 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.”

For more than 20 years, I’ve been a foster parent. I’ve 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 their plight.

In Arizona and other states, children who are missing for six months are dropped from the foster care rolls. A “missing” child is not necessarily on the streets; some are safe with a foster family or relative and 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.

“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. Workers determined that she had been put in a prostitution ring.

I asked human rights worker Quintan Wikswo why the 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.”

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 child should fear that if they go missing, no one will try to find them.

Rene Denfeld is the author of “The Child Finder.”