LEE'S SUMMIT, Mo. — The Missouri State Highway Patrol announced Thursday that an operation involving more than 100 law enforcement agencies this week led to 23 runaway foster children being found in the state.
The MSHP Troop A office in Lee’s Summit served as the command post for Operation HOPE, which stands for Helping Oppressed People Escape.
Of the 23 runaway foster children found, 10 children all between 13 and 17 years old were recovered in the Kansas City area.
“The reason you’re doing this is to make sure those foster kids are getting the care that they’re afforded,” Sgt. Bill Lowe said. “Some of them were in homes. Some were in vehicles that our investigators located.”
According to investigators, the children said they ran from the foster homes as a result of poor living conditions.
Lowe said the operation hit close to his heart as a dad.
“On a fatherly level, it’s a unfathomable that somebody would do that to a child,” he said. “When you see kids that are not provided those opportunities, it breaks your heart.”
On average, officers told 41 Action News that up to 110 foster children in Missouri are reported missing on a daily basis.
With four Operation HOPE cases being investigated for possible trafficking, advocate Kris Wade said runaway children often are prime targets for traffickers.
“Runaways are at an extremely high risk to fall into this stuff,” Wade, who serves as executive director for the Justice Project, said. “Runaways are very vulnerable. They usually don’t have any money. They may not have a phone or a way to reach out for help.”
With human trafficking ballooning into a multi-billion dollar industry, Wade said harsher penalties could help crack down on the growing crime.
“We know it’s out there, and we know young kids are the biggest money makers for traffickers,” she said. “We need to vigorously address demand and have very severe penalties for buyers.”
Around 14,000 children are in the Missouri foster care system.
Moving forward, Lowe believed Operation HOPE could serve a clear message.
“We, as law enforcement, want to make sure people are doing what they’re supposed to be doing in the foster care system,” he said. “When they’re not, we’re going to find you.”
The Missouri State Highway Patrol said five arrests were made in connection with the operation.