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Federal watchdog says Missouri fails to monitor or report missing foster children

 Photo Illustration-Carlos Moreno
A federal report released in September found a number of failures by the Missouri Department of Social Services in caring for and finding missing foster children.

Missouri lawmakers will hold a hearing Tuesday on a recent federal report that says the state fails to protect children missing from foster care, often not looking for the kids or even reporting them missing.

The report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General was done after 978 children went missing at some point from Missouri foster care in 2019, triggering creation of a federal and local law enforcement task force to locate the children. In August of that year, when 94 children were missing from foster care, the task force located 23 children, targeting metropolitan areas, according to the report.

The ensuing investigation showed that the state doesn’t have policies to identify foster children who may be at risk of running away, fails to take federally required actions to locate the children and often doesn’t report the children as missing to local law enforcement or to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, as required by federal law.

The report chose to look at 59 cases in detail and found that one in three of children didn’t receive any required health and safety checks if they were returned to foster care. Nor did case managers assess their safety or experiences while missing, which would have been needed to determine whether they were victims of sex trafficking, the report says.

A federal law passed in 2014 requires states receiving federal foster care funds to design protocols for locating any missing child and to make reports on missing children within 24 hours. States are also required to develop policies to identify and determine services for foster kids who are at risk of becoming victims of sex trafficking.

Investigators found that Missouri’s case management system creates challenges for case managers and those trying to provide oversight because the system doesn’t distinguish between children who are missing from their placement and those who may be in an unapproved, but known, placement.

“In our conversations with Missouri officials, we learned that Missouri cannot rely on its case management system to accurately identify children who are missing from foster care without reviewing individual case files,” the report said.

The report recommended that Missouri:

  • Develop policies to help identify children who have a heightened risk of going missing from care and interventions that could reduce their risk.

  • Implement a monitoring mechanism to ensure that case managers comply with requirements and document their compliance when children are identified as missing and when they are located or return to care.

  • Implement improvements to the case management system to enable accurate identification of children who are missing from foster care.

The Missouri Department of Social Services did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

State officials, however, acknowledged the recommendations and reported some fixes in a letter to federal investigators that was included in the report. The letter, from Jennifer Tidball, acting director of the Department of Social Services, said the agency has developed human trafficking policies and has expanded collaborations with local partners; developed policies to prevent future failures on notifications of missing children; and is evaluating changing its case management system.

The hearing Tuesday takes place before the Missouri House’s Children and Families Committee at 10 a.m.

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3

Peggy Lowe is an investigative reporter at KCUR in Kansas City.