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Archive for Friday, July 16, 1999

FOSTER SYSTEM NOT IMMUNE TO RUNAWAYS

July 16, 1999

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Officials say there is little they can do to keep foster children from walking away from facilities.

Logan French is still missing.

French, 17, was the subject of a Journal-World article two weeks ago detailing his mother's frustrations with the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services and Kaw Valley Center, the private contractor overseeing Logan's foster care, after Logan ran away from foster care.

Logan's mother, Lee French, said she has had no word of her son since he and three other boys walked away on June 11 from Elm Acres Youth Home Inc. in Pittsburg.

If French hasn't heard from Logan, neither have the SRS, Kaw Valley or Elm Acres, a Kaw Valley subcontractor.

SRS and the contractors are required to contact the parents about the child's well-being. French's father, Robert Cassella of Tonganoxie, did not reply to a phone message left with Robert's father, Raymond. Raymond Cassella said Logan has not been found.

Officials with SRS and the contractors declined to comment on Logan's case, citing client confidentiality.

Like Logan, about half of the children SRS supervises in out-of-home placements are teen-agers, said department spokesman John Garlinger.

Last year SRS reported 752 "runaway incidents," Garlinger said. SRS oversaw the foster care of 6,500 children in 1998.

The runaway incidents figure is a bit deceptive, the spokesman said.

"Twelve runaway incidents can represent one kid that ran 12 times," Garlinger said.

Marilyn Alstrom, vice president of human resources and development for Kaw Valley, the foster care contractor for Douglas and 32 other counties, said any figures her company would provide would have a similar flaw.

"It includes truants and runaways," Alstrom said. "If they're running away from class, they're running away from obtaining an education."

Children in foster care facilities like Elm Acres may find it easy to run away. Children in foster care must, by law, be placed in "the least restrictive environment."

At Elm Acres, children can literally walk away, said executive director Frank Ross. Staff members can try to persuade a child to stay, but they may not restrain the child.

SRS and the contractors may restrain a runaway only with a judge's order. Children are placed in SRS care in the first place by a judicial order.

But, if a child has run away twice, the judge may issue an order to a child requiring him or her to remain in the foster-care facility. If the child runs a third time, the judge can issue an order to place the child in secure care, Garlinger said.

In secure care, the child, when unsupervised, is placed in a locked room. A child may be ordered into secure care for only 60 days, though the judge can renew the order twice.

Another way runaways may be restrained is if they are picked up by law enforcement and are judged to be threats to themselves or others. In such cases, the police may lock them up for 24 hours.

Runaways also may be locked up if they go to or are taken to a psychiatric hospital, Garlinger said.

When children first run from foster-care facilities, facility workers notify the police, who have the only authority to pick up a runaway.

Next the facility workers notify parents, SRS and the case-management contractor.

With the notifications, the facility's responsibilities end. Neither SRS nor the contractors have a policy requiring them to look for the child. They do, however, look through case files for hints as to where the child might be or people the child might contact. Sometimes the case workers contact those people or they pass the information on the police. Then they begin making phone calls hoping the child eventually will go home.

Until the child is found, a parent is left to reply as Lee French does when asked if Logan has been found.

"No," she says. "Have you heard anything?"

-- Erwin Seba's phone message number is 832-7145. His e-mail address is eseba@ljworld.com.

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