JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A federal report shows that more than 975 kids in Missouri’s foster care system have vanished at some point.
Just days after the report was released, lawmakers stressed their frustration with the state’s agency for the lack of protection and policies during a House Families and Children Committee.
The acting director for the Department of Social Services said, as of Tuesday morning, there are 95 kids in the state’s case management system that were on the run.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a report Thursday that showed Missouri has previously failed to comply with federal requirements that could have found missing children.
There are more than 13,000 kids in Missouri’s foster care system, better known as the Children’s Division under DSS. After hundreds went missing in August 2019, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General joined other law enforcement agencies to find them, which led to an audit of the state’s agency.
“I’m not going to say well there’s nothing to do because this is related to something that happened three years ago, but I am going to say that it absolutely is important, an important factor in how we are trying to lead and manage the children’s division right now,” acting DSS director Jennifer Tidball said.
Top DSS officials, including Tidball, responded to frustrated lawmakers placing blame on the previous administration Tuesday. Tidball pointed to a 2016 “stop doing” memo from the previous administration, telling employees to assess families, but there’s no need to complete assessment reports.
“I don’t want to leave it with the committee that we aren’t doing anything because we are,” Tidball said.
Tidball told committee members that sometimes caseworkers run into problems of local law enforcement not looking for missing teenagers if the child is older.
In the 59 cases reviewed by OIG, the report said Missouri “rarely demonstrated attempts to reduce children’s risk of going missing.”
The audit showed that in nearly half of those cases, there was no evidence that the child’s case manager reported them missing as required by federal law and state policy.
“Your testimony is that this was a previous administration’s big oopsies in violation of federal law and I’m trying to determine whether or not that when we decided this was a problem,” said Rep. Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, who previously worked for the DSS Children’s Division.
According to the report, one child became a victim of sex trafficking in as many as four states.
“We need to abide by state and federal law because, for one, we might not get funding if those goes on and more kids sex trafficking out of foster care,” Rep. Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka, said.
“It’s kind of inductive of this department, and if it was a problem, you should have just fixed it. If you weren’t complying with federal and state laws, it should have been fixed.”
Those outside the agency, like the Office of Child Advocate, said the problems within are well known.
“I still see concerns with documentation, I still see concern of timely reports when a child is missing, how many days it takes to report them,” said Kelly Schultz, director of the Office of Child Advocate.
Chairman of the committee, Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold, said this report shows that 1 in 20 children in the system has been lost at one point.
“The goal of no one is to tear down a system that has no ability to prop children back up, but we have to do a better job because we are failing them,” Coleman said.
The report recommends to protect children better Missouri must develop policies to identify children who have a higher risk of going missing, creating interventions to reduce their risk of running away, implement a monitoring mechanism to sure case managers comply with requirements, and put a procedure in place to accurately identify kids who are missing from the system.
Members plan to meet again before January to discuss legislative recommendations lawmakers can address during session.