Missing from Care

In which Ross wanders around the U District trying to find a 14-year-old who is “missing from care.” Writing good policy is hard and I don’t think it works if you don’t try hard to understand the reality of what you are trying to do.

Many legislators are working on a bill (SB 5290) that makes pretty significant changes to the ability of judges to place children and youth in detention for non-criminal activities, like running away from a foster home.  The agency supports this bill, but has some serious concerns that will need to be addressed before it’s ready to be made into law.

In late February I spent the day with one of DCYF’s missing from care (MFC) locators. We have 9 people statewide tasked with finding youth who are “missing” from care. Typically, this means that they’ve run away from a placement, but there are other scenarios we pursue as well. This was an emotionally challenging experience. Nina Shapiro, a reporter from the Seattle Times went with us. Her article on the situation is here, and I found it to be well-balanced.

Writing about this is hard because I have to be cautious of the privacy rights of the youth involved and if I explain too many details of the demographics of the youth in question I run the risk of identifying her. It’s also just hard to write about.

We spent the whole day looking for two youth. We found neither, which is depressingly common, though the locator lit up when I asked him how many kids he’s found in the last 8 years of the work – “hundreds” was his answer.

We spent most of the day looking for a 14-year-old girl who has a history of running from placements. For context, 300-400 children, mostly older youth, run away from a foster care placement every year. The agency just released a research report providing some descriptive statistics about children who run. This was part of our ongoing effort to comply with the settlement in the Braam case (or here) from two decades ago. More on this later.

First, we visited the University District Youth Center (UDYC). UDYC provides drop-in and basic needs services, case management, and hosts a Seattle Public Schools Interagency Academy for homeless and at-risk youth in the University District. This was a cool place for youth to do laundry, get a bite to eat, talk to other people in the dry, and engage in some cool looking art and other creative pursuits and connect to key services. We had a great conversation with the program manager, but no direct leads.

We visited a drugstore (legal) on the Ave and left a flyer with the staff. I bought cashews, a granola bar and a diet soda for lunch. Made me think about the ease with which I could acquire food, and that it would have been easy for me to skip lunch, though I might have been a bit hangry later. This is not the experience homeless youth have.

We tried the library, often a hangout for youth on rainy days, but no luck. They wouldn’t take a flyer.

Next we followed a tip and talked to all the people in “tents” in a specific area. Living in a tent in February in Seattle is miserable, especially since many of the “tents” were really constructions of tarps and collected materials. Several of the folks we talked to had had contact with the particular girl, and all were concerned that someone that young would be out on the streets. It’s also a little dangerous for our social workers, and they behave very carefully as a result.

The tent in the photo wasn’t occupied. I took it mostly to create a memory of the difficult situation homeless people are in. Why do we have so many people living in these conditions? Probably beyond this short essay, but we have to do better as a society in providing treatment for obvious mental health and substance abuse issues so that our kids aren’t living in desperate situations.

A few more spots to look in with no luck and we were out of time for the day. I think our MFC locator could have been more productive without me tagging along, but I’ll bet there are a lot of days like this.

Looking for this child was a searing emotional experience. It must be terrifying to be in a place as a 14-year-old where living on the street feels better to you than the foster placement you were in.

Had we found her our options would have been somewhat limited. Our MFC locator can offer some options that may or may not have been appealing to her:

  • An opportunity to talk to her caseworker in the office or another “safe” location. They may have a relationship that we can make work.
  • Maybe we could offer her a better placement for her. There might be a rational reason she ran away from care. The locator can talk to the caseworker and other resources about what might be available to her.

That’s about it. He’s not a police officer and has no ability to detain her. The youth who run regularly know this. “87.5% of all runs from out-of-home placements occur due to repeat runners.”[1]

When we have a missing youth and we can’t find them quickly we will ask the court that supervises their case to put out a “warrant.” This puts police officers on notice that we’re looking for the youth. They have more options than our locators do, including the ability to bring the youth to a secure place to figure out a safe plan.

Risks Faced by Homeless Teenagers

Increased likelihood of high-risk behaviors, including engaging in unprotected sex, having multiple sex partners and participating in intravenous drug use.  Youth who engage in these high-risk behaviors are more likely to remain homeless and be more resistant to change. 

Greater risk of severe anxiety and depression, suicide, poor health and nutrition, and low self-esteem.

Increased likelihood of exchanging sex for food, clothing and shelter (also known as “survival sex”) or dealing drugs to meet basic needs. Forty percent of African American youth and 36 percent of Caucasian youth who experienced homelessness or life on the street sold drugs, primarily marijuana, for money.

Difficulty attending school due to lack of required enrollment records (such as immunization and medical records and proof of residence) as well as lack of access to transportation to and from school.  As a result, homeless youth often have a hard time getting an education and supporting themselves financially.

Homeless gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or questioning (GLBTQ) youth are more likely to exchange sex for housing or shelter, are abused more often at homeless shelters (especially adult shelters), and experience more violence on the streets than homeless heterosexual youth.

Source: National Conference of State Legislators

Let’s start with the observation that it’s not safe for children to be living on the streets. The risks of drug use, being a victim of violent crime, and being commercially sexually exploited are very real, and we are all concerned about these young people. Youth who are in foster care are in the care of the state and we’re responsible for ensuring, at a minimum, that they have a safe place to sleep.

Given the national data in the sidebar, very few police officers are going to think that they should let a 14-year-old go back to being homeless. The problem is that the officers don’t have a lot of good options. They could

  • Do the same thing the locator tried – get the youth to talk to the caseworker.
  • Take her to a safe, but temporary location where she could get connected to the caseworker and find a better placement. This could be a teen drop-in center like the UDYC, a library, a coffee shop, etc.
  • Take her to a safe place with overnight capacity. This could be a Hope Center, a Crisis Residential Center, etc. It could be a program run by a county. For example, King County runs the FIRS program, providing an alternative to juvenile detention to youth involved in domestic violence cases.
  • Take her to juvenile detention. This is the current default in most cases. Here the youth who have not committed a crime are mixed with a juvenile offender population. It’s always open, there is always a bed, and the officer and the judge feel like it’s safe for the youth.

Unfortunately, we have lots of evidence that being in juvenile detention creates additional trauma[2] for the youth, and that being exposed to a population more inclined to delinquency often results in new criminal activity by the youth.[3]

It’s a hard tradeoff for the officer or our social worker. Placing a child who has run many times before or who has other significant risk factors in a non-secure placement is likely to result in the child running again.[4] The officer knows the risks the child is exposed to. Right now the warrant isn’t clear about what should happen, so the officer takes the lowest risk option, even if it isn’t necessary to have a secure setting for that particular youth.

I’ve had several conversations with child welfare experts who say that we are one of very few states that puts this much effort into searching for youth who run from care. It’s frustrating for many of the reasons outlined above – there are very few options that work out well, so many other jurisdictions just wait for the youth to return to their placement or wind up as a statistic. This is not a good path.

The bill affects many adolescents who are not in the foster care system. In many cases youth running from a foster care placement have the same needs as other homeless youth, and face the same risks on the street. We do not have the same legal authority or responsibility, but should develop a solution that is flexible enough to work with all of them.

The Missing from Care report, as well as most national research on this topic, points to the more complex behavioral health needs of the youth who repeatedly run from placements. We are concerned about behavior of these youths that place them at extreme risk of harm. We have work to do to either find placements that work better for these youth or prevent the trauma in the first place. Even if we make great progress in these areas we will still have kids who run, and will need a better strategy.

Of course, we also have court involvement in this issue here in Washington. In late January we came to final agreement with the plaintiffs in the “Braam” case, and we now have some new outcome targets that need to be met in this area.

The Braam vs. State of Washington lawsuit was filed in August 1998 on behalf of a class of foster children who had three or more placements while in foster care. The lawsuit alleged that the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) did not provide constitutionally required care to foster children.

Under the Settlement Agreement the Department agreed to achieve 21 individual outcomes. These outcomes addressed a number of areas including monthly visits, sibling placement, sibling visits, annual mental health and substance abuse screens, and youth missing from care.

As of 2017 the Department had achieved compliance or outcomes were no longer enforceable for all but two of these 21 outcomes. The two remaining judicially enforced outcomes both related to foster children who are missing from care. They measured the frequency of foster youth running from care and the median number of days youth are on the run. Court cases shouldn’t go on for decades, and in the last month we came to an agreement on three substitute missing from care outcomes with the plaintiffs. These measures are risk-adjusted, are actually measurable, and are hopefully achievable. Under these new outcomes, we agreed to: 1) reduce the percent of youth with a first run event by 20% from baseline; 2) reduce the percent of youth with a subsequent run event by 20% from baseline; and 3) reduce the mean length of run events by 10% from baseline.

Conclusion to a blog post that is much too long:

We are working with the bill sponsors, the Juvenile Court system, youth advocates, and the Office of Homeless Youth to come up with language that makes sense, works towards eliminating the use of detention where there are safe alternatives for youth, and can practically be implemented.

In the short run, the agency will make some changes to our internal policy to stop using detention in circumstances where it is not warranted. I’ll write more about this as we figure out detailed proposals and the process to roll them out. (There are 40 police agencies in King County alone…)

None of this will work if there are not safe, secure alternative places for youth to stay that are not juvenile detention. Ideally these would be available everywhere in the state. Based on the data we think we could make a system work that had options in the counties that have the most youth who run from care. We would recommend King, Pierce, Spokane, and Yakima counties, with a convenient location in each. 

These facilities will need to be staffed to provide trauma-informed assessment and support for youth. They need to be therapeutic, not correctional.

We also believe that some investments in providing permanent placement alternatives for older youth like the Responsible Living Skills program may be a better fit than some foster or group home settings, and may reduce the likelihood of youth running from a placement.


Missing from Care Analysis: Part 1. Page 11. WA State Department of Children, Youth, and Families, Office of Innovation, Alignment, and Accountability, Olympia. Retrieved from https://www.dcyf.wa.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/reports/2019_MissingfromCareAnalysis.pdf

[2] Richard A. Mendel (2011), No Place for Kids: The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration, Annie E. Casey Foundation, pp. 5-12.

[3] Lipsey, M. (2009). The Primary Factors that Characterize Effective Interventions with Juvenile Offenders: A Meta-Analytic Overview. Victims & Offenders, 4(2), 124-147.

[4] “Once a child has run from care there is a 60.1% chance they will run again.” Missing from Care Analysis, Page 11