Foster care advocates urge lawmakers to help resolve DCS runaway problem

Teen sisters Jayden and Jasmine Rogers know what drives foster kids to run away from the group homes and hospitals they’re sent to.  

“Maybe the streets will offer freedom from fear,” said 14-year-old Jayden. “Maybe we can find a place where we can feel safe.” 

“For kids in foster care, life can be dismal and dark,” added 16-year-old Jasmine. “I understand how it feels to be in a place of darkness, thinking: If you just escape, just run, it’ll all go away. But the reality is we only run into more darkness: drugs, trafficking, kidnapping and worse.” 

According to a semi-annual child welfare report from the Department of Child Safety, since December 2022 as many as 133 children ran away while in DCS custody. Tragically, not all foster kids who go missing are found in time. Just days after her son, Damian Wilson, ran away from a behavioral health facility in late September, Joie Wilson Lambson received a devastating call informing her that his body had been discovered. 

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“As the words came through the phone, my heart shattered. And it remains in pieces,” Lambson wrote, in a letter to lawmakers read aloud on Wednesday afternoon. 

Jayden, Jasmine and Joie joined a chorus of voices at a legislative hearing on missing children to implore the five-member panel to pass more safeguards for foster kids in the care of the Arizona Department of Child Safety. At issue is the speed with which a recent law increasing reporting requirements for the department is being implemented, and the gaps left to cover to ensure kids that go missing are recovered before they experience harm. 

A law crafted last year by Rep. Barbara Parker, R-Mesa, who convened and chaired the Wednesday hearing, adds deadlines for the Department of Child Safety and local law enforcement agencies to meet after a foster child goes missing. Within 24 hours, the department is required to inform local police that the child is missing and make a report to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. And unless doing so would negatively impact the search for the child, known relatives must be informed of their disappearance. Within 48 hours of receiving a missing child report, the law enforcement agency is responsible for providing a description to local media outlets and posting information to its social media accounts.

While the reporting requirements were already part of federal guidelines and the department’s own policies, no specific timeframes for carrying out the tasks were previously mandated under Arizona law. And that led to inconsistent notifications, according to parents who spoke to lawmakers on Wednesday.

Damian went missing on Sept. 24, and that same day his body was found, but his mom received piecemeal and delayed information. On Sept. 25, Joie was told he had run away, and on Sept. 28 she received a phone call — from her attorney, not the department — that Damian had died. 

“No one had contacted me,” she wrote to the committee. 

Janell Jones wasn’t informed that her 16-year-old daughter ran away from a group home until days later. And her disappearance wasn’t reported to local law enforcement promptly, either, according to Jones. She was found four days after running away, having suffered rape and exposure to drugs. 

“My husband and I were not notified for over 48 hours,” Jones said. “Key steps were not taken.”

The solution, said Sarah Rogers, whose own teenage foster daughter also ran away, is to expand the reach of the Department of Child Safety. The responsibility of finding a missing child shouldn’t be placed solely on a single case manager or law enforcement agency. All eyes in the child’s entire network should be searching for them, instead. And DCS is best placed to know and connect to that network.

“To figure out where this child might be is pivotal,” Rogers said. “And to just hand it over to law enforcement can be very difficult because law enforcement doesn’t necessarily have all the information at their disposal. But DCS knows the bio parents, DCS knows where the child goes to school, DCS knows the group home organizer, DCS knows the case manager, DCS knows the lawyers, DCS knows their representatives. DCS knows everyone that’s involved with this child’s life.”

And while Parker’s law bolsters that goal in part, by requiring that the agency reach out to everyone who knows the missing child for information on their whereabouts, DCS General Counsel Katie Ptak told lawmakers that finding runaway kids is more complex than simply knocking on doors. 

First, a child must be confirmed as actually missing. The agency directs DCS licensed facilities to make a report if the child has been absent for more than two hours. Even if an issue arises after hours, the agency staffs a 24/7 hotline to contact. But in the majority of cases, Ptak said, kids are visiting their friends or have gone to their biological parent’s home. 

After 2 hours have passed, a 24-hour checklist kicks in, where the agency begins contacting people who know the child to hopefully locate them. 

Rep. Rachel Jones, R-Tucson, questioned why Amber Alerts aren’t issued. 

Ptak responded that Amber Alerts can only be requested via a law enforcement agency, and, under state law, only in very specific cases that include a felony crime, as in a known abduction. 

“If a child runs away, There’s no felony that’s been committed and we don’t have legal authority to ask for an Amber Alert,” Ptak said.

Neither can DCS issue social media alerts or contact local news outlets. That would violate the confidentiality of foster children, which is why such actions are taken by law enforcement agencies instead.

And if the child is in the custody of DCS but in a facility licensed by a different agency, the reporting timeline can grow even more convoluted. Behavioral health facilities like the one Damian was living in, for example, aren’t overseen by DCS and thus don’t have to abide by the 2 hour reporting deadline other facilities are subject to. In Damian’s case, the delayed report to DCS unfortunately delayed the information Joie received. 

If lawmakers want the Department of Child Safety to take on a more active role, that’s likely something that needs to be corrected in statute, Ptak said. 

“If we want the department taking on more of these (cases),” she said. “Go knock on doors and look for children, those are things that we can do but they’re not things we’re currently authorized to do.” 

The good news is that the vast majority of runaways are recovered, Ptaki told lawmakers. 

“About 90% of children return on their own, we find them, or are recovered by law enforcement within the 6 month reporting period,” she said. 

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