a critical look at the child welfare system


It is a story of international proportions. On January 14, 2015, BBC News reported that: “Children went missing from foster care on 13,305 occasions in 2013-14 – a 36% rise on the previous year.” 528 of these missing children were deemed to be at risk of sexual exploitation, and 431 of them were said to be linked to substance misuse.

In February of 2014, Todd Wallack reported in the Boston Globe that on any given day, “hundreds of children in the Massachusetts welfare system may be missing, mostly teenagers listed as ‘on the run.'” Among the missing were 134 foster children – some as young as 13, according to the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families.

In August of 2013, investigative journalist Randy Ellis reported in The Oklahoman that 78 children in the custody of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services were missing, and that 38 of them were missing for over three months.


It took the death of Florida’s Rilya Wilson in the Spring of 2002 for the issue of children “missing” from foster care to garner national attention.1 It came to light that the state of Florida had managed to lose track of nothing less than 500 of its foster care children. Some time thereafter, the body of 17-year-old Marissa Karp was found in Collier County Florida. She had run away from her state-designated foster family in April. The Collier County Sheriff’s Office explained to the St. Petersburg Times that she had been murdered.

Subsequent to August of 2002, officials in the states of California, Tennessee, and Michigan disclosed that hundreds of children are similarly “missing” from their foster care systems.

The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services reported in August of 2002 that 740 foster children were missing from its system.

Shortly thereafter, Michigan foster care officials announced that 300 foster children were missing from their foster care system. Governor John Engler declared that finding these children would be a “top priority.” As of November, 2002, the Family Independence Agency (as Michigan’s child protection agency is known) had managed to locate only 48 of these missing children.

“Anytime a child is missing, that’s a big concern for us and we make all the efforts we can to try and locate them as quickly as possible,” explained Carla Aaron, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services. Aaron reported in November of 2002 that nothing short of one out of every 20 foster children were missing from Tennessee’s foster care system. Tennessee officials reported that 98 percent of these 496 “lost children” were adolescent runaways.

This has always been a major problem with the foster care system. The New York Post reported in January 2001 that “there were 2,316 reports of kids under 16 missing from the foster-care and group homes in the city – up from 1,594 in 1999 and 964 in 1998.”

Follows the article “The Lost Children,” much as it appeared on Lifting the Veil in 1997, with some minor edits having been made in 1998.

Read The Lost Children

1. See Millicent Williams and Caren Kaplan, “Without a Trace? Children Who Go Missing From Care,” Permanency Planning Today, National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connections at the Hunter College School of Social Work (2007) (noting that the disappearance of 4-year-old Rilya Wilson “provided a wake-up call for the nation’s public child welfare system,” and that among the responses, the Child Welfare League of America joined forces with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to develop “best practice guidelines for agencies to deal with the issue of children missing from care.”)

Last updated February 5, 2015