Lawmaker wants Amber Alert-type system for missing foster children

? A Democratic state lawmaker is calling on the Department for Children and Families to come up with new procedures for responding when children in the state’s privatized foster care system go missing.

Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said Thursday that she remains shocked at reports that more than 70 Kansas foster children are listed as missing, and she said there needs to be a system similar to an Amber Alert that would prompt an immediate search.

“You can’t use the Amber Alert because that’s limited to kids who’ve been abducted, basically, and you think are in immediate danger,” Kelly said in a telephone interview Thursday. “There ought to be some other category since these kids are wards of the state. There ought to be some other procedure that we follow when a kid goes missing from a foster home. That’s what I’m going to be drilling down on.”

News that more than 70 foster children are currently missing was first reported during a meeting Tuesday of a special Child Welfare Task Force on Tuesday in response to questions about the disappearance in August of three sisters from a Tonganoxie foster home.

DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore reportedly seemed unaware of those missing girls, whose disappearance had been reported that day by the Kansas City Star.

She also said the estimated 74 foster children currently missing represent about 1 percent of all the children in foster care, which is about the national average.

“”There are more than 7,000 children in the foster care system,” Gilmore said in a news release issued Wednesday. “These children who run away are not under lock and key; they are generally in family foster homes, older youth, who attend school and activities, and they often miss their biological families. We work closely with our foster care contractors, law enforcement, the school system and affected families to locate missing children as quickly as possible.”

“I understand. I used to work with emotionally disturbed adolescents,” Kelly said in response. “And when you have them you will always have runners. That’s just part of it. But you have a protocol for dealing with that, and that’s what I’m looking to see, what their protocol is. Apparently the protocol doesn’t include notifying the secretary because the secretary knew nothing about these three girls missing.”

Wednesday’s news release from DCF highlighted the existing protocols for children who go missing from a DCF placement. Those protocols call for filing a missing person report with the appropriate law enforcement agency, contacting the child’s biological parent, if parental rights have not been severed, and notifying the court of the child’s missing status.

In addition, Kelly said, officials from the private agencies that operate the foster care system told the task force Tuesday that they file monthly reports with DCF on missing foster children.

“But that’s every 30 days, they give an update,” Kelly said. “There’s not an immediate response to missing kids, like the amber alert. They don’t have policies and procedures, protocols that make that a very high priority. That’s what I’m concerned about, that the secretary doesn’t even know about it and that they don’t have anything in place to respond to that as an emergency – to shift resources to find that kid.”

Kelly said she may introduce legislation to change the way DCF deals with missing foster children, but that she hopes it doesn’t come to that.

“I would hope the agency and the contractors would voluntarily come to the table, with law enforcement, and whatever other entity ought to be involved, and come up with a protocol that gets activated instantly once we know a kid is missing from a foster home,” she said.