The Foster Care Aspect of the D.C. Missing Girls Story

Youth Services Insider cannot recall a stranger narrative turn than the recent one involving missing children (particularly girls) in Washington, D.C. A public outcry began when, all of a sudden, reports of missing girls began to pop up on the social media feeds of the city’s police force. The reaction to this suggested a rash of disappearances had occurred, followed by accusations that most media would be paying far more attention if the girls were white.

This supposed vanishing of girls was actually a change in social media strategy; missing reports were being posted by the police faster. But the misplaced angst over that shift exposed a separate, more angst-appropriate truth: Thousands of children, mostly black and Latino, are reported missing in D.C. every year.

In 2015, 2,433 children were reported missing, according to police data provided to the New York Times for an article published over the weekend. In 2016, the number was 2,242. Of these, police said, 99 percent have been found.

From the New York Times article:

In truth, there is no surge in disappearances; reports of missing children here have actually declined over the past year. But in this city of haves and have-nots, the uproar has exposed a part of the capital the rest of America rarely sees and it points to a deeper and more nuanced problem: at-risk youth, disproportionately black and Latino, whose lives and struggles — sometimes involving sex trafficking — are often ignored by public officials and the news media.

As this story began to unfold, YSI immediately wondered whether the city’s foster care system was a factor here. The Child and Family Service Agency (CFSA) has about 950 youths in foster care at the moment. Were some, or many, of these reports emanating from children in the city’s care running away from placements?

“We don’t feel like the majority of these kids are coming from our system,” said CFSA spokeswoman Mindy Good. “It would be disturbing if they were mostly coming from our system. It’s just as disturbing that they’re not.”

Good helped us nail down some numbers and information. What we found:

  • All foster parents and group home staff are required to call two entities if a child goes missing for any amount of time: the police, and CFSA.
  • In 2016, CFSA recorded 287 instances of abscondence, a fancier word for “they ran away.” It is important to note that this is not an unduplicated number; in some cases, a single youth might account for several of these instances.
  • In 2016, there were 200 missing children’s reports filed in connection with these abscondences. Presumably, the difference is explained by children who were found sometime between when CFSA was notified and a report was going to be filed with police.

So just under 10 percent of the 2016 missing children reports were filed on behalf of foster youths who ran away from a home or a congregate care setting. It isn’t clear from the Times story if the police data on missing reports is unduplicated; as with CFSA’s abscondence figures, it might include several reports tied to one child.

But it does appear that the majority of missing kids from D.C. who are not found are foster youth. The city reports 18 open cases of missing youth. Good told YSI that, as of last week, CFSA had 16 youths “in abscondence” from their care.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
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  1. Partial comment in LA Times 4/4/2015:
    Went to a “Child and Sex Trafficking Summit” hosted by the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council last summer. During the summit, it was reported to us by FBI and Law Enforcement that 70% of children between the ages of 8-up to age 18 were on the streets of Los Angeles, as run aways from “foster care” and “group home providers” contracted with the Department of Child and Family Services. Yes, 70%! We were shocked to say the least by that number. There is another stat out there, that 80% of children detained by DCFS, Los Angeles, do not belong in the system because they have at least one parent, grandparent or other family members who are non offending, safe and fit and that DCFS dishonestly overlooks to care for their children. DCFS would rather process kids into the system. (Don’t know how this translates to the missing children in Washington…but I bet there is a connection…At that summit…it was reported foster care providers don’t call police when the children run away…and there is one less mouth to feed).

  2. Foster children are not a majority of the children in missing children reports, but they are a vastly disproportionate share. Foster children represent under one percent of the total population of Washington DC under age 18, yet they represent about ten percent of missing children reports in the district. Maybe they’re trying to tell us something.

    Richard Wexler
    National Coalition for Child Protection Reform

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