Finding Missing Foster Children: Kids Who Disappear From State Care Often at Disadvantage

Photo: Finding Missing Foster Children: Kids Who Disappear from State Care Often at Disadvantage: Experts Say State Privacy Laws, Lack of Families Mean Cases Arent Publicized

For every Elizabeth Smart, there's an Amber Nicklas. For every Kyron Horman, there's a Patrick Alford. For every Caylee Anthony, there's a Rilya Wilson.

For every high-profile missing children's case that grabs the nation's attention, there are hundreds of foster children who disappear from state care whose cases are never even reported to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

Experts blame the disparity on a perfect storm of state regulations, privacy laws and a lack of families willing to sink thousands of dollars and precious time into searching and spreading the word.

"There are states who informing law enforcement agencies or organizations like ours of a child missing from care violates the statues in place to protect the privacy and identity of those children," the center's CEO, Ernie Allen, said. "I guarantee you foster children aren't well-searched for when they aren't reported."

As with all cases across the country, a majority of the children missing from state care are teenage runaways. Younger children are often snatched by non-custodial parents or family members.

"The big challenge is that these systems tend to be overwhelmed ... and sometimes these kids can fall through the cracks," he said.

In most cases, it's not that the state agencies responsible for missing children -- runaways and abductions alike -- don't place a high priority on their children. It's that state laws generally prevent them from sending out pictures, sometimes even a name.

In the case of Amber Nicklas, a now 7-year-old girl who was found alive in Phoenix earlier this month, her disappearance wasn't reported to the center for missing children, Allen said, until more than six years after she was snatched from a Norwalk, Calif., Chuck E Cheese restaurant by her three teenage aunts.

Two of the women were caught immediately, the third disappeared with Amber. But when a judge agreed to seal all documents relating to the case, including details of Amber's abduction, even the police department investigating the kidnapping had to get a court order to view the documents when they received a tip that she might be living in Phoenix.

"In hindsight," said Capt. Patrick Maxwell of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, Norwalk station, "this case, in my opinion, should not have been sealed since there was a suspect outstanding and a missing child."

Because of the lack of reporting, the center for missing children has no access to data of how many children are missing from state care.

And while a handful of states have a policy in place to quickly identify and report missing children, Allen said, "I'm confident that many states don't."

Disappearance of Rilya Wilson Prompts Massive Overhaul

Two states that have worked fervently to cooperate with the center for missing children are Illinois and Florida. In Florida's case, the motivation for reform came after the case of 5-year-old Rilya Wilson, whose 2001 disappearance went unnoticed for months before the state Department of Children and Families noticed she had vanished from her caretaker's home.

Rilya was never found. She would now be 13 years old.

The case prompted a massive overhaul, which Allen holds up as an example of how other states should treat cases of missing foster children, whether they be 4-year-old little girls or 17-year-old angry runaways.

"It embarrassed the state of Florida," Allen said. "The governor appointed a task force to look at the system."

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