Agency resumes missing kids plan
By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Mike Gordon
After months of delay, a court challenge and the threat of criminal sanctions, state child welfare officials have resumed a program that releases confidential information to the public in order to locate missing foster children.
But finding these children remains difficult. The state Department of Human Services, which was forced to suspend the program for five months last year, now has more missing children — all of them runaways — than it did when the program began in April.
Foster children run away all the time and frequently return in one or two days, according to the department. Last spring, however, the department reported it could not locate 38 foster children through May 31 and that many of them had been gone for several weeks.
As of noon Friday, the number of missing foster children had risen to 47, but with one key difference that underscored the difficulty facing the department: Most of them had not been on the list in May.
"As a snapshot, it doesn't seem like it is improving, but it is not going wildly out of control," said Human Services Director Lillian Koller. "It's vexing. It's chronic. It's something that plagues other states, the challenge of older foster kids. They don't feel connected to the foster homes where they are placed."
The public release of previously confidential information to the media began when Koller implemented new administrative rules on April 29. They allowed her to quickly release information, such as a child's name and photograph. Koller told caseworkers in her Child Welfare Services Branch that they had one working day to report a missing child to police, inform the child's biological parents and seek media publicity to help locate the child.
Going public about a missing foster child had always been an option before, but it required permission from the Family Court, a process that could take several weeks.
By early July, however, the practice had come under scrutiny in the Family Court, which handles foster child cases behind closed doors. Human services officials faced threats of criminal and civil sanctions and the possibility of a special prosecutor to investigate the matter, Koller said.
The legal challenge threatened the future use of the new rules and Koller stopped releasing information rather than "inflame the court," she said. The matter was settled in November and the process resumed soon afterward.
The court objected to telling the public that the children were troubled runaways from foster homes, Koller said.
"They think that is all stigmatizing to the child and that information is not necessary for the public to know in order to help find those kids," she said. "We disagreed with that."
The Family Court was not bothered by a Web site created by the department last summer to help find the children, Koller said. It agreed to its use because the Web site never called them anything other than "missing children."
After the challenge was settled, the department distributed digital cameras to section heads in order to begin photographing teenage foster children who run. A broader policy to include all older foster children is being considered.
And the reporting process led to an electronic database that supervisors on every island could check to see who was missing, even if they had no idea where the child was.
Preventing a child from running away from a foster home in the first place also received greater emphasis last year, the department said.
Involving them in decisions that affected their life was seen as a way to solve the problem, said Amy Tsark, administrator for the Child Welfare Services Branch. Before, most decisions were made by the social workers without engaging the children, she said. Now they have a say in things.
"They want to have a voice and I think we should give them a voice," Tsark said.
The solution was a program called Youth Circles. Initiated in April 2004, it was in full swing last year.
Foster children were encouraged to sit down and share their thoughts on placement, what services they wanted and how to connect with their biological or foster family. In some cases, the department was able to approve their requests, even licensing approved relatives, like an older sibling, Tsark said.
The process has been well received by the youth, she said. By the middle of last year, the department had worked with 84 foster youth.
"If the kids take some ownership, some responsibility, that way they will respond better," Tsark said.
But whether the number of missing foster children is high or not is debatable.
Cynthia White, coordinator for the Hawai'i Foster Youth Coalition, doesn't think it is, given that the state cares for 2,700 foster children on any given day.
"But it's hard to believe that we can have a missing child on an island, isn't it?" she said.
She said foster children who run often look for family members for shelter — even those who allegedly abused them.
"They are seeing with their heart and with their spirits," said White, a former foster child herself. "We are seeing with our eyes and our value system. I think this is a hard thing for people to grasp, that a child would still feel so connected when they have been so hurt."
But longtime foster parent Sherri Giron said that 47 missing children is a high number.
"When the state has custody of the kids, they are the parent of the kids," she said. "They have the same responsibility that any other parent would have. They should be putting posters up, they should maybe run photos on TV. You don't have to say it was a foster child. But I think that maybe they don't want to admit to anyone that someone is missing."
Even former foster children have different views on the missing.
Keli Lloyd, a 19-year-old who said she ran away a lot, felt the number was not alarming or surprising.
"I ran away every time I got placed," she said. "If I didn't like it, I left. I got lost. I got out of there."
But former foster child Vanessa Melendez-Makimoto, also 19, took the opposing view. One of the critical questions for her was how long a child had been missing.
"If it is the same kids who are missing for a long period of time, I don't know how they can be missing for so long," said Melendez-Makimoto, who said she had always been too frightened to run. "It is like no one is looking for them."
Human services officials stressed last week that there are ongoing efforts to locate the children.
They have contacted police and last-known caretakers, spoken with family members and visited places where the children were known to visit.
On O'ahu, where most of the missing children disappeared, the children become part of the 1,000 runaway children sought each year by the Honolulu Police Department. Although no special efforts are made just because they are foster children, the task for police is daunting because there are only five officers assigned to the job.
Publicizing the names of the missing, however, appeared to work during its limited use last summer, said Koller, the human services director. After the names and photographs of missing foster children appeared in The Advertiser, four came back within a week, human services officials said.
Despite the delay in Family Court, Koller said the new system of locating missing foster children is an improvement.
"What we are trying to do is signal to these children that we deeply care about them and they are not making good choices by being on the street," she said. "Let's work with you. What wasn't good? Why did you run and what can we do?"
But children leave just as quickly as they return.
Ten of the children missing last May have run away at least one more time since then.
Reach Mike Gordon at email@example.com.