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Case Study: Missouri's Efforts To Protect Children Missing From Foster Care

WHY WE DID THIS REVIEW

On any given day, thousands of children nationwide are missing from their foster care placements. Children who go missing from foster care often experience adverse outcomes. In 2019, 978 children went missing at some point from foster care in Missouri. In August of that year, OIG agents joined the Department of Justice and local law enforcement in Missouri metropolitan areas to locate children who were missing from foster care. OIG agents shared concerns that prompted this evaluation. ACF provides Federal funding and oversight to States and eligible Tribes to support foster care programs.

HOW WE DID THIS REVIEW

To follow up on OIG agents' concerns, we evaluated whether the Missouri foster care agency (Missouri) followed applicable Federal and State laws, policies, and procedures to protect the 59 children whose cases we included in our review. We determined whether Missouri provided these children with required services before and after their episodes of being missing, and whether the State followed requirements when the children went missing. Additionally, we evaluated whether children were identified as having any characteristics commonly associated with a higher risk of going missing from care. This case study is not projectable to the entire population of children who went missing; however, it uses insights gained from OIG involvement in the joint law enforcement task force that point to high-risk areas for further review.

WHAT WE FOUND

Though Missouri is not required to do so, we note that it does not have policies for identifying children who may be at heightened risk of going missing or interventions to reduce their risk. In the 59 cases we reviewed in detail, Missouri rarely demonstrated attempts to reduce children's risk of going missing. The majority of the children who went missing (49 of the 59 children) had risk factors associated with a higher risk of going missing. Missouri rarely provided these children with services to reduce their risk of going missing from care—only 7 of the 49 case files indicated that children received such services.

During the times in which children were missing from care, Missouri frequently failed to comply with requirements that could have aided in locating them. Nearly half of the case files contained no evidence of Missouri reporting the children as missing, as required, to either local law enforcement or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Additionally, for many missing children, there was no evidence that Missouri made the required notifications and contacts to seek information on the children's potential whereabouts.

For one in three of the children whose cases we reviewed, there was no documentation that the child received any required health and safety checks following the child's return to foster care. For these children, there was no evidence that their case managers assessed their safety, determined their experiences while missing, or determined whether they fell victim to sex trafficking while they were missing from care.

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 current system alone cannot distinguish between children who are missing from their placement and those who are in an unapproved, but known, placement.

WHAT WE RECOMMEND

To better protect children from the risks associated with being missing from foster care, we recommend that Missouri (1) develop policies to help identify (a) children who have a heightened risk of going missing from care and (b) interventions that could reduce their risk; (2) 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; and (3) implement improvements to the case management system to enable accurate identification of children who are missing from foster care.

Thousands of children are missing from foster care systems across the Nation, and—given the critical role States must play in protecting these children—States need additional support and guidance from the national level. Therefore, we recommend that ACF (1) develop a forum for States to share experiences and best practices related to reducing children's risk for going missing from foster care, locating missing children, and addressing their needs after they return to care; and (2) support Missouri as it works to reduce children's risk for going missing from foster care and improve compliance with Federal and State requirements related to children who go missing.

Missouri did not explicitly concur or nonconcur with our three recommendations to its agency, but it did note actions it has taken in response to our recommendations and agreed to take additional responsive actions. ACF concurred with our two recommendations to its agency.