Last week, a sweep by law enforcement agencies found 18 children who had been reported missing from the Kansas foster care system, according to a news release by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.
But 58 children remain missing, according to a spokesperson with the Kansas Department for Children and Families, which oversees the state’s foster care system.
“One child away from placement is one too many,” said Taylor Forrest, director of communications for DCF in an email statement on Tuesday. She said the state’s child welfare system is still missing 56 “verified runaway youth,” one “unserved exparte” and one “relative abduction.”
The sweep came as the Kansas child welfare system, which oversees about 7,600 children in foster care, has come under increased scrutiny and its leaders say they are working towards improvement.
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On Friday, a class-action lawsuit was filed in federal court against Gov. Jeff Colyer and Gina Meier-Hummel, secretary of the state’s child welfare system, along with officials of two other agencies, claiming children in the Kansas foster care system have been treated so poorly that they’ve suffered mentally or fled from foster homes. In some cases, they have been trafficked for sex, sexually abused inside adoptive homes or in one instance reportedly raped inside a child welfare office, the suit says.
In a response to the lawsuit, the Department for Children and Families said that improvements have been made since Meier-Hummel took over almost a year ago. One example cited as an improvement was lowering the number of missing and runaway children, which grew to as many as 81 in August 2017.
“It is critically important to DCF to locate these children,” Forrest wrote in an email. “Finding missing and runaway youth is a top priority for the agency and has been a major focus since Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel arrived at DCF 11 months ago.”
The sweep focused on Sedgwick County, Johnson County and Wyandotte County, but “ultimately spanned many Kansas counties and saw leads generated and forwarded to other states,” the release said.
It was part of a U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services, Office of Inspector General and Office of Investigations initiative called “Operation HOPE.” The KBI worked with more than 100 federal, state and local law enforcement officers to find the missing foster children, the release said.
Although the timing of the announcement came on the heels of the federal lawsuit, Forrest said the Department for Children and Families has been “coordinating with the KBI and the OIG (Office of the Inspector General) with this for some time.”
The children who were found will undergo “assessments on what any of their immediate needs may be, and then we work to get them in a safe placement and get appropriate services in place to address their needs in a timely manner,” Forrest said.