For over two years 25 Investigates examined the nationwide failures of the foster care system. Now, there is evidence our reporting is getting results.
Following our Missing and Forgotten series, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) revised its policy on missing and absent children in state custody earlier this year, leading to a reduction in the number of missing foster kids.
The agency renewed its focus of tracking down runaways placing an emphasis on prevention and expanded a pilot program that dedicates social workers strictly to locating missing or absent foster kids.
When our series first aired last May, 25 Investigates found some missing foster kids were shut out of the system once they aged out. But, despite our firsthand accounts, DCF denied ever shutting out any children.
Our investigation found more than 800 children in DCF custody who turned 18 were being unloaded from the system each year.
"I was like ‘look I really need help’ and when I went in they said, ‘Your cased is closed,’" a former foster child who only wanted to be identified as Joanna told 25 Investigates in May 2018.
After seeing out reports on missing foster kids, Alyssa Sarno, a former foster child, contacted our newsroom to share her experience with DCF workers.
"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.’ 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,'" recalled Alyssa.
However, the agency told 25 Investigates it does not track how many kids in state custody were missing when they were discharged and, more importantly, a missing child would never be knowingly closed out of the system.
Tammy Mello, executive director of the Children’s League of Massachusetts, an advocacy group that works closely with DCF, does not believe the agency was deliberately ignoring kids like Joanna and Alyssa. Instead, she says the agency was probably overwhelmed.
“I don’t think that [the kids] were forgotten. I think people feel paralyzed in not knowing what to do,” said Mello.
She adds that the recent policy change indicates the state has intentionally shifted its approach to dealing with runaways, particularly when it comes to prevention and engaging directly with youngsters.
“How do we engage with kids and talk to them directly not around them, and understanding what are the reasons they are leaving,” said Mello.
Just months after our series aired, DCF Commissioner Linda Spears told 25 Investigates’ Kerry Kavanaugh the agency would expand its Missing and Absent Pilot Program, which was successfully rolled out in Western Massachusetts in April 2018.
“We believe that if you sit and talk with children and really do intensive supports around them when we believe they're at risk for running, that we can dramatically reduce the number of kids who are on the run,” said Spears in November.
25 Investigates requested DCF data that proves the program is working.
The agency said that since July of 2018 there have been 38% fewer missing kids. State data acquired under public records request shows that last July there were 167 missing or absent foster kids compared to 103 this April.
Mello, the Children’s League of Massachusetts’ executive director, says those numbers represent a “significant improvement” from only two years ago.
“DCF is not making policy decisions in a vacuum,” she noted. “They are being much more proactive, and proactive prior to kids leaving.”
Though the issue of runaways is not new, Mello, a former DCF social worker who spent 20 years at the agency, says a new approach was necessary.
“We are talking about young people who have experienced significant trauma. So really tapping into that trauma, understanding how that trauma comes out for young people because it can look really different, and doing that work prior to them becoming at risk of running is really important," she said.
DCF declined our request for an on-camera interview but in a statement, a spokesperson told us:
"Any time a youth leaves a placement without consent is concerning. The Department of Children and Families continues to strengthen its efforts to proactively identify youth at risk of running from placement and works closely with its provider community. As a result of the Department’s efforts to date, the number of youth that remain unaccounted for has decreased by 38%.”
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