A new report by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) found 4.6% of the 2,094 children in the state’s foster care system went missing in 2020, and many were victimized, including by sex traffickers.
Among the children who went missing, 136 reported being victimized and 68 were victims of sex trafficking, the report found.
“My initial reaction to the report is this trend that we’re seeing of more and more children running away or going missing from foster care is disturbing, and I think it highlights the fact that foster care is not an ideal place for kids,” Andrew Brown, the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation’s distinguished senior fellow of child and family policy, told Dallas Express.
Findings that stood out to Brown included that older youth, 15 to 17, were the majority of those who went missing from state custody.
“When you look at the reasons that they gave for running away or going missing, a lot has to do with just not wanting to be there, disliking the placement, not enjoying the structure and the rules that were placed on them,” Brown said.
He pointed out the complex trauma these children have experienced in being removed from their own families. Brown said the state needs to focus on the preservation of families.
“Texas needs to be doing a better job at preserving families and preventing removals into care,” Brown said. “Because the reactions that you’re seeing from the kids who are going missing from care really underscores that foster care and removal of children into state custody should be the last option that we consider and should only be used when we know that kids are in immediate danger of harm and the harm that we know we’re going to cause to that child by separating them from their family is less severe than the trauma that would happen to that child if they were allowed to remain in their home.”
The new report highlights that the number of children in Texas’ foster care system who go missing is trending in the wrong direction.
One Accord for Kids (OAK) reported in 2019 that 2,122 children went missing and more than 100 were victims of sex or labor trafficking and were sexually or physically abused. Those numbers increased over the previous year and 2017. Of the children who went missing, 21% were 13 or younger and more children went missing from a residential setting and not a foster home.
The recent DFPS report highlights a trend that has been occurring in previous years, according to Brown.
“You’re seeing more children run away from care, which is not necessarily surprising and one of the commonalities among previous reports,” he said. “But you’re also seeing increases, [with] the majority of these children, it looks like, are running away from more restrictive placement environments.”
He said the children are running away from “institutional type placements.”
“Residential operations know fewer children are running away from your more traditional foster family homes. That’s indicative of a lot of the struggles that we have with residential placements, emergency shelters, those types of placements. Those aren’t good for kids. Foster care itself is not good for kids. It’s kind of a necessary evil in a lot of cases,” Brown said.
Although the state has been moving toward community-based foster care, Brown said it is not moving fast enough, and the answer is to keep children in their homes and only remove them as a last resort.
Family placement and community participation is also recommended by One Accord for Kids to address the growing problem, including trafficking of foster care children. OAK indicates that it should be a priority to find permanent homes for these children.
The DFPS is responsible for overseeing 50,000 children at any given time, according to One Accord, and many of these children do not want to stay in foster homes or be found when they run away.
Texas lawmakers passed several pieces of legislation in the last session to address many of the state’s foster care problems and prioritize “family preservation,” Brown said.
“Removal is the last resort option, and we need to be doing more to preserve and strengthen families, so there were several pieces of legislation that were targeted directly at that,” he said.
Brown mentioned House Bill 567 and House Bill 3041, which aim to preserve families and prevent unnecessary removals. House Bill 3041 will take effect in October and will allow the state to use federal dollars that were only slated to fund child welfare services to preserve a family structure and keep a child in their home.
The federal government recognized and research has also shown that “removal is traumatic and should be prevented. Our priorities should be preserving families,” Brown said.
“Seventy-five percent of the kids who are in foster care are there for neglect, which is often related to conditions of poverty rather than danger. We need to be doing more to address poverty and issues that place families at risk upstream from the harm and utilizing community-based services to do that rather than the coercive arm of the state,” he said.
As for traffickers, Brown said they do, in fact, target foster children. Part of the reason is the issue of trauma they have experienced which affects their decision-making.
“And traffickers know this and they know how to exploit it,” Brown said. “Foster kids have a desire for belonging and feel they don’t belong anywhere. [They] feel rejected by family, they feel rejected by previous foster placements that have gone wrong.”
Brown said some foster residential care facilities have reported traffickers waiting outside the gates for a kid to run.
The number of U.S. youth who are trafficked each year is alarming. As reported by The Cross Timbers Gazette, as many as 300,000 youth are sex trafficked, and 50% of them are young men and boys.
Sex trafficking is also a huge moneymaker. The Urban Institute, in a U.S. Department of Justice-funded report, found sex trafficking in Dallas alone generates $99 million a year. One anti-trafficking advocacy group, New Friends New Life, found that 400 teens are trafficked every single night in Dallas alone.
To keep children safe, Brown said addressing the family issues that have caused children to be neglected is necessary.
“We need to be doing a better job of preserving families and addressing some of the root causes that can lead to children entering into the system so that we don’t have to remove children that really aren’t in immediate danger of harm,” Brown said.
Helping families “with various issues to actually overcome those struggles to be the parents that most of them want to be for their kids” is how to keep children safe, he added. In addition a community-based model is important, as a community can help a family through its struggles.
“You have to have neighbors, friends, places of worship and charitable organizations that can work with families through times of crisis and through struggles,” Brown said. “The government is not able to do that. The government makes a bad parent. The government makes a bad neighbor. What families in crisis need are good neighbors and good communities who can come to their aid, that’s the only way you’re going to solve this problem. It’s why I think the community-based model for foster care is so important for the state.”
If as a last resort a child must be removed from a family, then that child’s stay with the state should be as short as possible and the child should be placed in a family environment “whether through reunification or adoption, as quickly as possible,” Brown said.