Some teens flee foster care to fend for selves

Monday, December 23, 2002

ST. LOUIS -- As foster care systems in Missouri and elsewhere come under closer scrutiny following high-profile problem cases, another issue has come to light: the numbers of teenagers fleeing protective care.

About 10,000 children nationally are believed to have run away from foster care, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In Missouri, officials say they have lost track of at least 146 foster children, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in its Sunday edition. Altogether, state officials believe about 1 percent of Missouri's roughly 12,300 foster children -- and about 3 percent of all Missouri teens in foster care -- are on the run.

Those who work with foster children say some teens, shuffled between homes or lacking meaningful relationships with adults, may decide they're better off trying to fend for themselves.

Runaways from Missouri's system usually are reported by foster parents, group homes or state agencies, and efforts are made to track them down, foster care workers said.

But it's difficult to do. Some youths would rather not be found, and searchers face other obstacles.

Couldn't circulate fliers

A grandmother serving as a foster parent in Herculaneum, south of St. Louis, told the newspaper that state workers did not consider it a priority to find her 16-year-old granddaughter when the teen disappeared for six months with a 23-year-old.

Shirley Williams said, "Nobody would do anything."

She said she was told she couldn't circulate flyers because that would violate confidentiality policies designed to protect foster children's identities.

Efforts are under way to improve Missouri's foster care system, state officials said.

Gov. Bob Holden last week outlined a reorganization of the Department of Social Services, following the August death of 2-year-old foster child Dominic James and an investigation that found a "complete breakdown" in Missouri's child welfare system.

The boy's foster father, John Dilley, 34, of Willard has pleaded innocent to second-degree murder and assault.

Holden, through an executive order, decided to create an independent ombudsman position to check out complaints and monitor children's services.

State Auditor Claire McCaskill is completing an investigation of the foster care system, which she said is looking at the issue of runaways. That report isn't due until March.

State officials have already decided to hire a social worker to track missing foster children from St. Louis, said Chris Rackers, associate director of the Division of Family Services. The city has the highest ratio of runaways statewide, with about 50 teens unaccounted for.

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