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

Experts say state privacy laws, lack of families mean cases are less publicized.

July 26, 2010, 12:04 PM

July 27, 2010— -- 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."

Since 2005, Florida has identified and reported 7,849 children missing from state care, Allen said, and, of those, 7,221 were runaways. The state has 214 active cases: 209 runaways and five family abductions.

But in the majority of missing foster children cases, "I think the cause for this is systemic," Allen said.

"I think, overwhelmingly, they don't get into the system," he said.

In Connecticut, a state Allen identified as having particularly strict regulations regarding the identification of children in state custody, the state typically notifies the state police, which in turn is charged with reporting the case to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

"I'm sure we would not identify them as foster kids," State Department of Children and Families spokesman Gary Kleeblatt said, "because of our confidentiality issue."

But Connecticut State Police Lt. J. Paul Vance said that finding the children trumps privacy concerns.

"We don't care," he said. "Our objective and our goal is solely to locate that missing child."

But even he conceded that police are also hesitant to identify the child publicly as a foster child, though for different reasons.

"I don't want to tag them or label a child, if you will, than anything more or less than a child," he said.

But there are other, often more serious, challenges that come with searching for a foster child.

"There might not be family photos, there might not be some things that we need to get the ball rolling," Vance said, listing DNA samples, family members to interview or family history.

State police, Connecticut's clearinghouse for all missing persons cases, are also often hampered by a lack of good information about when and where the child disappeared, he said, a problem compounded by a large number of cases and frequent emergency transfers.

State of New York Searching for Patrick Alford, 7

But even when states do their best to publicize a missing child, it often doesn't garner the same frantic headlines blasted across the country as for the high-profile disappearances.

Earlier this month, the case of missing 4-year-old Alisa Maier, who was snatched from her Missouri front yard, was solved within 26 hours after intense media coverage, neighborhood search parties and the pleas from her mother, who even tried to chase down the car carrying her kidnapped daughter.

Alisa was found alive at a car wash 80 miles away. Her suspected captor shot and killed himself.

In all such cases, the children's biological parents were "out there fervently pleading for help in the search for their children," Allen said.

"It's a lot harder," he said, "for a state social worker to have the kind of impact on the public when the child is missing as opposed to if it's a mom and a dad."

A case that defied all convention, however, was that of missing 7-year-old New York City boy Patrick Alford, whose status as a foster child hasn't stopped his foster parent and the state from getting his case put on everything from local newspapers to national websites to a segment on "America's Most Wanted."

Patrick, Allen said, had attempted to run away before to find his biological mother. In January, he made another run for it and got away while his foster mother was taking the trash out. He left in the dead of winter, with no extra clothes and no supplies.

She immediately called both state authorities and the police, who in turn notified the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. He has never been found.

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