Foster Care Tragedies Send States Scrambling

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Nobody seems to know where 6-year-old Rilya Wilson is or if she’s even alive, but her disappearance from a foster home two years ago is reverberating through foster care agencies around the country. The announcement last year that she had been missing for 15 months before Florida officials noticed set off a wave of similar revelations in other states, many of which are now scrambling to find hundreds of missing foster children.

The missing child phenomenon has been well-known in government child welfare agencies for years, but the Wilson case thrust the issue to national prominence. Among the jurisdictions that have released figures over the past six months on the numbers of foster youths that they couldn’t account for: Los Angeles County, 488; Oklahoma, 103; Tennessee, 496; and Massachusetts, 400 a year.

New efforts to find the children include posting foster children’s pictures on websites, despite privacy concerns; locking up chronic runaways, despite concerns about best practice and violations of federal law; and increasing collaboration between child welfare and law enforcement agencies.

What has become clear in all of these efforts is that the vast majority of the missing youths are runaway teenagers, and state agencies have little idea of how to curb that problem. (See “Runaways from Public Care Leave Agencies Lost,” May 2002.) The U.S. Children’s Bureau reported that during one six-month period studied in 1999, more than 7,000 youth ran away from foster care facilities. (The AFCARS Report, October 2000.)

Some child advocates say that rather than tackling the current crisis by tracking down and sometimes locking up kids, states need to figure out why kids run away.

“This is an obvious cry that something’s going on with these kids,” said Millicent Williams, director of foster care for the Child Welfare League of America. “Especially with older kids, we haven’t done a real good job of having them connected to people who actually care about them.”

Another continuing problem – easing the transition for foster youth who age out – was tragically dramatized by the suicide of an Iowa teen just three months after he left foster care.

These stories look at how three states have tried to deal with those problems.

Florida: Collaboration Finds Missing Youths
Critics Unimpressed

By Andrew D. Beadle

Florida’s massive effort to find missing foster children has simultaneously demonstrated how much can be accomplished with extra effort and how far the states are from getting a handle on the problem.

A recent report from a Florida task force charged with finding 393 children missing from state foster care accounted for all but 88 of them, prompting child welfare and law enforcement officials to call the 15-week “Operation Safekids” a success, and child advocates to blast the state for continued failures.

“Operation Safekids proved to be a sound example of the positive results that can be generated when state and local governments work in concert toward a common goal,” according to the task force report prepared for Gov. Jeb Bush (R).

Cooperation between law enforcement and welfare workers improved markedly because of the task force, the report said, and numerous regulatory barriers to finding children quickly were eliminated. The task force made several recommendations to reduce the number of runaways and to find missing children faster.

Jack Levine, president of the nonprofit Voices for Florida’s Children, said it was disappointing that the report highlighted better relationships between law enforcement and welfare agencies.

“I’m underwhelmed by the partnership, simply because I assumed they had that partnership,” Levine said.

“As usual, they try to obfuscate and use word games to cover up the real situation,” said University of Memphis Law School professor Chris Zawisza, former director of the Children First Project at NOVA Southeastern University’s law center. “They don’t have an effective child welfare system with the proper resources.”

Always ‘a Day Late’

Bush initiated the task force in August, directing workers from the Department of Children and Families (DCF) and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to work with local authorities. The project was prompted by the case of Rilya Wilson, who was 4 when she disappeared in January 2001 and has not been found.

The case drew national attention to the state’s inadequate child welfare system and led to the resignation of DCF Secretary Kathleen Kearney. She was replaced by Jerry Regier, a former administrator of the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

By Dec. 10, the Florida operation had helped to locate 290 of the 393 missing children. Of the remaining 103, 14 had aged out of foster care, one was murdered and 88 were not located. Of those, 68 were considered runaways and 20 were believed to have been abducted by relatives or otherwise “endangered.”

The task force report noted that the missing children accounted for only 1 percent of the 48,000 children under the care or custody of the DCF on any given day.

But Zawisza countered, “If 1 percent of kids placed with their parents were missing, that would be bad.”

The task force found that the majority of missing children (339) were runaways. Some were chronic runaways, including one child who ran four times during the 15-week task force period. Most of the runaways were 15 and older, and three-fourths were girls.

Like other states, Florida is seemingly at a loss over how to curtail teens from fleeing state care. (See “Runaways From Public Care Leave Agencies Lost,” May.) “If a child is bound and determined to run away, we’ll always be a day late and a dollar short,” said DCF spokesman Owen Roach.

“You have many of these kids who run away not to another county, but to another state or even another country,” said David Lawrence Jr., chairman of the Governor’s Blue-Ribbon Panel on Child Protection, who also is chairman of the Florida Partnership for School Readiness.

“It’s beyond their control with kids in foster care,” agreed Rob Geen, a senior research associate at the D.C.-based Urban Institute. “While Florida gets a lot of blame, and they deserve blame, the situation in Florida is probably not all that different from other states and cities.”

Florida’s system is in such a shambles that running away might be the best option for some teens, said Frank Orlando, a former juvenile court judge in Fort Lauderdale.

“It’s probably good if they’re older and they ran away and got out of the system. They escaped,” said Orlando, director of the Center for the Study of Youth Policy at NOVA Southeastern.

The task force urged the Florida legislature to consider mandatory secure treatment facilities for some chronic runaways, especially those “whose runaway actions have put their lives in danger.” Some states, such as Michigan, have tried secure detention of chronic runaways, although critics say such moves violate federal laws that prohibit putting status offenders in secure lock ups.

Although the task force ended its 15-week project in December, Roach said state and local officials are continuing to pursue missing children with the same vigor.

Contact: DCF,; Operation Safekids final report,

Andrew D. Beadle can be reached at

Michigan: Websites and Lock-ups
Are civil rights being violated?

By Jack Kresnak

Detroit—Michigan’s multi-agency approach to finding missing foster children, launched soon after revelations in August that the total was 302, includes putting the names and pictures of missing foster children on a website and locking some teen runaways in secure detention.

The initiatives came about after embarrassing reports in the news media that the state Family Independence Agency (FIA) had sent a 12-year-old boy to live in Atlanta with his mother, even though the mother’s parental rights had been terminated because of her chronic drug abuse. The boy, his mother and younger sister soon disappeared.

The boy and his sister were found in Dallas, panhandling to support their mother’s crack habit.

Michigan Gov. John Engler (R) subsequently ordered the FIA to do more to find missing foster youths. “I’m very irritated,” he told the Detroit Free Press. “I’d like to move much faster. But it’s a big bureaucracy. They’re not exactly swift when it comes to moving.”

The website ( went up in September with about 200 names and as many pictures as the FIA could gather. The agency did not seek judicial approval to post names and pictures of foster children, judging that the concerns for the kids’ safety outweighed their right to privacy.

The agency also ordered all private foster care agencies it contracts with to produce photographs of all foster children in their care and to update those pictures yearly. Social workers scrambled to conduct face-to-face visits with each foster child.

As of Jan. 16, the site reported 21,596 hits and 169 calls to the FIA child locator tip line. Five missing foster children were found as a result of the tips, while more than 100 of the original 302 youths were found through other means. Most of the success was due to actions by the Michigan Supreme Court and a Detroit police unit assigned to help find the missing foster children.

Caseworkers Called Before Judges

In October, the Supreme Court ordered the state’s largest family court in Detroit and Wayne County to form a special docket with one judge to monitor efforts to locate the foster children reported as missing. The Supreme Court later extended the order to 23 other circuit courts that the FIA said had missing foster children.

Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Michael Hathaway conducted a series of extraordinary hearings in which child protective services and foster care workers were questioned by the judge and an assistant attorney general about missing kids on their caseloads. Many of the workers were new to the cases and had not even reviewed all the files on the youths. Some youths hadn’t been seen by a social worker for several years.

In some cases, Hathaway ordered the agency workers to seek writs of apprehension for the children, giving police legal authority to take them into protective custody. He urged them to work closely with the Department of Community Justice’s Child Rescue Task Force, saying that it had better tools to find people, even those who had fled to another state. The task force, a unit of the Wayne County Warrant Enforcement Bureau, is composed of police officers.

The court later began a series of hearings in which relatives, neighbors and even an 11-year-old neighborhood boy not under court jurisdiction were summoned to tell the judge what they knew about particular foster children.

Beginning with a list of more than 100 missing foster kids from Wayne County, Hathaway first addressed the nine cases of missing foster children who were under age 13.

Collaboration among the FIA, the state Attorney General’s Office, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office and the Child Rescue Task Force helped to locate all nine children within a few weeks. One family of four boys, kidnapped by their parents from a home in suburban Detroit, was found in Alabama. The kids were flown back to Michigan and the parents charged with parental kidnapping. Another child was found in Arizona and another in Chicago, after being gone from Michigan for five years.

Locking Up Teens

But teenagers who run away from foster care placements are presenting a tougher challenge.

Prompted by the murder of 15-year-old Heather Kish, a suburban Detroit runaway whose body was found three weeks after her name was posted on the FIA’s website, officers with the child rescue task force decided to find as many of the missing foster kids from Wayne County as they could.

Using techniques that included surveillance, distributing fliers and squeezing informants, the task force soon found two runaway girls, ages 13 and 15, who were working as prostitutes in Detroit. Because they were neglect wards of Wayne County Juvenile Court, the police turned them over to the FIA, which placed them in the Davenport Shelter run by Spectrum Human Services.

Spectrum is a nonprofit contractor that serves about 1,200 children and adults with mental, physical, emotional and behavioral problems. Within hours, both girls had walked away, leaving the police angry, the FIA embarrassed and the court frustrated.

The court’s co-chief judge, Mary Beth Kelly, then issued an order allowing police to place the runaway foster children in the maximum security Wayne County Juvenile Detention Facility. All detained children are supposed to have a hearing the following day before Judge Hathaway, but that hasn’t always happened.

Hathaway has allowed continued detention of some juveniles. The judge warned kids he released into a relative’s home or shelter that if they run away again, they will be held in contempt of court and placed in detention for 30 days.

The court’s actions may violate federal and state laws that generally prohibit putting kids who are either neglect wards of the court or status offenders into locked facilities. But no one in Michigan has publicly protested the actions.

Amy Pellman, legal director for the Los Angeles-based Alliance for Children’s Rights, said detaining runaway foster children is unconstitutional.

“First of all, it’s a violation of their civil rights,” Pellman said. “Secondly, it’s punitive rather than rehabilitative. ... They need to be in a safe, loving environment and not in juvenile hall.”

Jack Kresnak can be reached at

Iowa: Will Death Spur Reform?
Teen had aged out

By Martha Shirk

In a case that holds lessons for foster care caseworkers everywhere, a 17-month investigation has concluded that Iowa’s foster care agency violated both the law and its own policies when it released a mentally retarded and mentally ill youth from foster care without arranging for adult services.

Reggie Kelsey was homeless for most of the three months between his 18th birthday and his suicide by drowning in May 2001. His death, which received substantial media attention, caused a furor in Iowa over the failure of the state Department of Human Services to better prepare him for independence.

Foster care advocates estimate that nationwide, about 20,000 youths “age out” of foster care each year.

Three Iowa legislators asked the Iowa Citizens Ombudsman to review the agency’s actions in Kelsey’s case, as well as its overall approach to helping youth in foster care make the transition to independence. The ombudsman is the investigative arm of the Iowa General Assembly.

In a 186-page report released last month, Iowa Ombudsman William P. Angrick II concluded that Kelsey’s caseworker, Karin Ford, made three critical missteps in the months before his 18th birthday:

•Despite repeated warnings from therapists and teachers that Kelsey was incapable of living alone, Ford approved his move from a group home to his own apartment. Two weeks later, the private agency that supervised both placements expelled him from the apartment for breaking rules. Because there was no bed open at the agency’s more supervised group homes, he was taken to an emergency shelter for youth, run by Youth Emergency Services & Shelter. But his eligibility for shelter services ended 12 days later, when he turned 18, and he became homeless.

•Ford failed to refer Kelsey’s case to the Polk County Transition Committee, a multi-agency group that would have provided a case manager to help plan his transition from foster care.

•Ford failed to refer Kelsey to her own agency’s Adult and Family Services unit, which caused a serious lag in services.

Angrick offered 18 recommendations for changes in the agency’s transition services for older youth, including: finding a better way to assess their ability to succeed in independent living, improving the supervision of caseworkers, opening communications between the state agency and mental health professionals and teachers, and referring foster children who may be eligible for adult services to the appropriate agencies a year before the end of their eligibility for foster care.

In a response appended to the report, Ford, a 14-year veteran of the agency, said that she “used all available resources (as limited as they were) to make decisions to best help Reggie succeed with the quality of his life,” but was hampered by inadequate resources and supervision.

“The unfortunate reality is that our community does not embrace our children in foster care,” she wrote.

In a separate response, the agency’s interim director, Sally Titus Cunningham, said the agency agreed with the ombudsman’s recommendations in principle. But she noted that because of large caseloads, “It is becoming increasingly difficult to provide the type of casework that the vulnerable children of Iowa need and deserve.”

The agency has not commented on whether Ford faces disciplinary action.

Since Kelsey’s death, transition services for older foster youth have improved somewhat. The Iowa Legislature last year required state foster care workers to develop transition plans for older youth. And since April, Iowa youth who age out of foster care have been eligible for some new aftercare benefits financed by the state’s allocation from the federal Foster Care Independence Act of 1999, commonly known as the Chafee Act. About 60 young people are receiving benefits. (About 200 youth age out of care each year in Iowa.)

“Before, there was nothing. Now, there’s something.” said George Belitsos, chief executive officer of Youth & Shelter Services, the lead agency in the Iowa Aftercare Services Agency. “Reggie’s death was tragic, but some good has come of it.”

Contact: The Iowa Ombudsman’s report,

Martha Shirk can be rached