ARLINGTON, Mass. - On any given week there are dozens of missing foster kids in Massachusetts alone and Arlington Police Detective James Smith has made it his personal mission to bring these kids home.
Since last fall, Boston 25 News Anchor Kerry Kavanaugh has followed the dedicated detective who refuses to give up and has tracked down hundreds of missing foster kids.
It’s all part of a yearlong Boston 25 News investigation, which found children — often taken from their families due to abuse or neglect and placed in state care — are winding up missing and forgotten by the system. In some cases, social workers in Massachusetts and other states closed the cases of missing foster kids while they were still unaccounted for.
25 Investigates followed Detective Smith as he made missing posters, called schools, parents and social workers and canvassed the Boston Common in search of missing foster kids.
“I’ll leave my house any time of the night,” said Smith. “Day, night, if someone calls and says, 'Look, I got this girl. I don’t know who she is,' I am on my way.”
The Arlington Police Department assigned Detective Smith to track down missing kids in 2010. Since then, he’s taken a simple approach to finding these children: He’s actually looking for them.
“This is much bigger than the kids running and missing,” said Smith. “Stop just assuming they’re running away. You can’t assume anything. You can’t assume that this girl or this boy is with their friend.”
Joanna, a former foster child who lived at a group home in Arlington, said Smith found her when she was missing at just 15-years-old.
“I literally thank God every day that Detective Smith found me because I would be in worse situation than I am now,” said the now 19-year-old.
Joanna said she was in and out of foster care since she was 14 — when her mother dumped her at a DCF office.
She recalls the day a guy she thought was her boyfriend sweet-talked her into running away with him to a hotel. She didn’t know he was actually a pimp.
“I was 15 at the time,” said Joanna. “He told me he was 18 and he turned out to actually be a 39-year-old man.”
“He was like, 'Oh, one of my friends is coming through. He just wants to meet you and say hi.' And before the friend got there, Detective Smith ended up walking in the room,” she said. “I was just standing there, like ‘Oh my God, I could've really been sold or even worse — killed.”
Arlington Police Chief Fred Ryan said it was Detective Smith who helped him realize these kids were caught in a cycle of exploitation and helped change the way the department treats missing kid cases.
“Historically, we would just take the missing person report and put it in a file and enter them into the database and really do little more to try to learn their whereabouts and ensure their safety,” said Ryan.
Arlington Police no longer use the term “runaway” because they say it fuels the stigma that these children are responsible for their own safety.
Detective Smith calls them missing and endangered.
“These girls are vulnerable,” said Smith. “I think we have to do a better job of protecting them.”
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