COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri lawmakers on Tuesday grilled state officials over a federal investigation that found nearly 1,000 foster children went missing in 2019, and at least one was sex-trafficked.
Federal authorities helped Missouri search for the missing 978 children in 2019. During the search, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' inspector general agents raised red flags about how the state handles missing foster kids, prompting the review.
The inspector general report found that one of 59 missing children examined as part of the review was sex-trafficked in at least four states while out of state custody.
"It's just disturbing," Republican state Rep. Dottie Bailey, of Eureka, said of the report. "I don't know where we go from here."
According to the report, Missouri's Social Services Department did not do enough to identify foster children at risk of leaving their foster homes, nor did it take steps to prevent kids from running away, find missing children or check on the children after they were found.
Acting Social Services Director Jennifer Tidball told the House Children and Families Committee on Tuesday that there have been varying policies over the years dictating how thoroughly social workers should document their actions. So state workers might have done more to help missing children, she said, but their actions just weren't recorded.
She added that the agency doesn't have nuanced reporting on missing children, meaning it's unclear how many of the 978 missing kids from 2019 were staying with friends or family in an unapproved placement, kidnapped by a parent or actually ran away.
Missouri Child Advocate Office Director Kelly Schultz said she's not surprised by the federal findings. Schultz's office is responsible for reviewing complaints over how the state handles cases of child abuse and neglect.
She said that more than 15 years ago, one of her foster children ran away on the same night she came to stay with her. Shultz said the state ultimately dropped its jurisdiction over the child's case because she was a "chronic runner."
"Fast forward two short years later, she was picked up and charged with prostitution alongside the very person who foster care (was) protecting her from," Schultz said. "We treated her as a criminal when she was a victim."
Many children leave their foster homes to visit relatives, friends or boyfriends or girlfriends, according to the inspector general report.
Missouri policy requires the state to set up a visitation plan so foster children can safely maintain important relationships. This also helps reduce their risk of running away from foster homes.
The Inspector General's Office found that many of the missing foster children from 2019 didn't have documented visitation plans.
Tidball said the agency recently implemented a statewide program to help older foster children find jobs and transition to independence, which she said could help prevent them from running away.
She also said the agency is trying to crack down on paperwork and documentation, better track the status of missing children and conduct a review to determine how to rearrange and beef up staffing to more effectively help foster children.