Missing and Forgotten: More foster kids say they were kicked out of system

More former foster children are coming forward to share their stories after a yearlong investigation by Boston 25 News revealed child welfare workers across the country closed the cases of missing foster kids while they were still unaccounted for.

>>MORE: Missing and Forgotten

The groundbreaking investigative series "Missing and Forgotten" sparked national outrage in May, but the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families and even the Governor continued to deny ever closing the case of a missing foster child.

"We don't ever close the case of a foster kid when they're still missing," said Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker in May, despite the information uncovered by 25 Investigates.

The governor's comment prompted a strong reaction from former foster child, Alyssa Sarno.

"That's a lie because they did it with me," said Sarno, who contacted 25 Investigates after our first report.

>>MORE: Missing and Forgotten: Thousands of foster kids kicked out of the system

DCF records show Sarno, who's now 24, was in state custody since the age of 14. She says she was in and out of several group homes, frequently running away from care.

"I ran because it was a cry out for help. No one wanted to listen to me," said Sarno.

She says she was 17, pregnant, and missing from state care when she called her DCF caseworker for help.

"She had told me, 'oh, you chose to run, you might as well stay out on the run. You're going to age-out anyway,'" said Sarno. "I'm like, ok, well, I'm sick. You know, I need help. What am I going  to do? (and she said) 'You should've thought of that before you ran.'"

Sarno says she "aged out" of the system, turning 18, without ever returning to a state-run program.

"I ended up doing it on my own," said Sarno. "I got my own MassHealth, made my own doctor's appointments, found my own place to live."

DCF would not comment on Sarno's case, but as 25 Investigates first reported, the agency unloads more than 800 foster children from the system every year when they turn 18. The agency told us it has information about which children are missing in "case files," but it does not have a way to track how many of those youth listed as "emancipated" were actually missing at the time they were discharged.

Advocates Frustrated

Members of Boston CASA -- Court Appointed Special Advocates -- also reached out to 25 Investigates after our reports in May. The specially trained volunteers and workers are often assigned to represent a foster child's best interests during DCF custody hearings and other legal matters.

"I don't even know that there are words to really describe how unfair it is that these kids are basically being thrown away," said CASA Mandy Mulliez.

"The reality is, these children are refugees in our own country," added fellow CASA Anne Harvey Kilburn.

Mulliez told investigative reporter Eric Rasmussen that she's also seen the state close the case of another missing foster child when she turned 18.

"They said she's actually ineligible for services because she was missing," said Mulliez. "She came back and asked for (services) and they said no."

DCF says it can provide help to foster kids until they're 21, but so far, the agency has not said if it has ever granted so-called "voluntary placement agreements" to foster children who were missing from care when they turned 18.

The agency has yet to comment on Sarno's case or any of the previous cases uncovered by 25 Investigates. DCF has also refused all of Boston 25 News' requests for an interview with Commissioner Linda Spears.

State Child Advocate Defends DCF

Maria Mossaides is the State Child Advocate in Massachusetts. During a recent interview with 25 Investigates, she seemed to minimize the problem of foster children labeled "missing" and "runaway."

"In any given day, it's less than one percent of the kids. And in most of those circumstances, social workers are in contact with the youth. That the youth is still talking to the staff," said Mossaides, referencing the most recent quarterly report from DCF.

When Rasmussen asked if "one percent" was satisfactory, Mossaides said "I don't think it's satisfactory for any child to be missing."

Mossaides blamed a lack of funding for past failures at DCF and insists the state has made improvements since 2016.

"We are working closely with the Department of Children and Families in sort of looking at these range of cases and saying, is there something we can learn around the children and youth who run and is there a pattern?," asked Mossaides. "Can we do a better job of risk assessing those youth?"

On Monday, DCF conceded that it did not even have a policy for what to do about "missing and absent" children until September 2016.

Missed Opportunity

Alyssa Sarno says the state missed an opportunity to keep her from falling through the cracks. Right before her 16th birthday, Maria and Ruben Costa say they received approval to become Alyssa's foster parents and take her home.

"We knew she was a troubled kid and that was my specialty,"said Maria Costa who has fostered other children before. "We fell in love with her."

But when the Costa's went to pick up Sarno on her birthday, they say the state suddenly reversed its decision and she was forced to remain in a group home.

"It was heartbreaking to tell a 16-year-old that she had no place to go. That nobody really wanted her," said Costa.

Now a mother of two and living on her own, Sarno says she's determined to not let the state's failures in the past determine her future.

"I'm still here trying to pick up the pieces."

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