Home is where the heart is, for missing foster kids, too

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - There are more than 9,000 Kentucky children in state care right now spending an average of 22 months moving between three different home placements.

Those are stats. This is reality: "A lot of these kids come from pretty horrific backgrounds,” Home of the Innocents treatment director Eric Gross said. “Lot of abuse, neglect issues, so when they're taken out of their home and put into care, they're desperate."

Eric Gross
Eric Gross (WAVE 3 News)
Rick Isaiah
Rick Isaiah (WAVE 3 News)

How desperate are they?

According to data compiled by the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, there were 121 foster children statewide listed as AWOL, Absent Without Leave in November.

Forty-nine of them, almost half the statewide total, were listed as AWOL in just one county: Jefferson.

“Been in out of home placement for years and years,” Gross said. “They go from foster home to residential care to hospitals and a lot of time they just lose hope, like why ever bother trying.”

“Our fence, it’s easy to just jump the fence and go,” Home of the Innocents program manager Rick Isaiah said. “So it happens quite a bit. I think they want to go home.”

The fence at Home of the Innocents may be easy to jump, but the problem goes far beyond this place. And it’s not about a fence. Many believe it is about home. Or at least family. Or relatives.

And further investigation reveals that’s not a priority here when it comes to foster child placement. In fact, Kentucky ranks 50th, last in the nation in the percentage of kids in foster care who are placed with relatives.

Seventy-five percent are placed in homes with non-relatives. And the percentages of child placements with relatives in Kentucky has been dropping steadily for years.

"I do think if we are able to get them to a family member, I think that is one of the bigger things, somewhere that’s familiar to them,” Isaiah said.

"I do think the more familiar they are with the placement, the less likely they are to AWOL and want to get to some place more comfortable,” Gross added.

We requested an interview with the Cabinet for Health and Family services about the AWOL numbers supplied by the Cabinet. We received an email in which spokesman Doug Hogan wrote:

“There is an entire policy section devoted to providing guidance to staff (SOP 4.67) around AWOL or runaway youth. Staff are required to file a missing persons report with local law enforcement for any missing child committed to the Cabinet, within twelve hours of receiving notice that the child is missing or has left the placement. Additionally, staff are required to notify the court within 24 hours and request a pickup order for a child who has run away.

The actual number of youth from Jefferson who have run away from their placements is lower than reflected on the most recent Foster Care Facts Sheet. Staff have verified that 32 are actually “AWOL”, as of Friday 11/16. In addition to those 32, there are three who left placement on or around their 18th birthday that a court date has not yet occurred to officially release them from commitment to CHFS, but who are legally adults.

One significant factor to note is that DCBS often receives custody of youth who have committed status offenses, such as running away. Of those who are considered AWOL, some ran from their own homes and not from a DCBS placement. The total includes youth of whom DCBS never had physical custody, only legal custody through the courts.”

What's at stake in all this? The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children found that of the 18,500 runaways reported, 1 in 6 were likely victims of child sex trafficking, and of those, 86 percent were in the care of social services.

"We’ve had situations where a kid has AWOL’d and come back a day or two later and they’ve been molested or raped or used for drugs, sex, things like that,” Isaiah said.

And those are stories for another day on the news, in which you seldom hear details about what was going on in the victim’s life at the time.

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