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Most missing foster kids in four major states weren't screened to see whether they'd been sex trafficked, says watchdog

The HHS inspector general found that in Pennsylvania, Illinois and two other states, most recovered foster children were not screened, even though missing children are often exploited.

More than three-quarters of foster children who went missing in four populous states were not screened after they were found to identify whether they had been victims of sex trafficking, in violation of federal law, according to a newly released federal audit.

The report by the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services found that in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Illinois, the vast majority of recovered foster children were not screened, despite evidence that missing children are often sexually exploited. A fifth state, Texas, has a better record, with 83% of the children screened, the report found. But the inspector general said the screenings often were not thorough. 

A federal judge recently threatened Texas with contempt fines by for what she said was the state’s failure to improve conditions in its foster care system, including inadequate background checks of caregivers and the high rate of sexual abuse of children.

Brian Whitley, a Health and Human Services regional inspector general, said his agency believes that most states are not complying with the requirement to properly screen every child who disappears from the system and then returns.

“The foster care systems are underfunded and understaffed, and these are particularly vulnerable children,” he said. “It’s a sad state of affairs when our most vulnerable populations don’t get the attention that they need in highly critical moments, such as when they are out on the streets fending for themselves.”

The federal government spends about $10 billion a year helping states maintain their foster care systems, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That’s equivalent to a little more than what the U.S. spent per month on the war in Afghanistan, based on an estimate cited by President Joe Biden. 

The Administration for Children and Families, the Health and Human Services agency that funds and regulates state foster care systems, said it agreed with the inspector general’s recommendations that it should prod states to do better.

The agency “stated that it has instructed its regional office staff to contact the appropriate officials in each of the five states identified in this report as potentially not screening children for sex trafficking in accordance with federal law,” the report said. 

But the agency’s enforcement leverage is limited — cutting off federal funding would do more harm than good, Whitley said.

The problem of children’s disappearing while in foster care is a long-standing one. A significant majority are teens who leave for various reasons, according to state data, like running away, feeling unsafe in their placements, reacting to constant temporary placements or wanting to reunite with family and friends. In a report in May, the inspector general counted 110,446 missing children episodes from July 2018 through December 2020. In 36 states, the average number of days foster children were missing varied from seven to 46, and nine states reported that missing children disappeared for more than 50 days on average.

There were 407,000 children in foster care as of 2020, according to the Congressional Research Service. Missing children are at great risk of sex trafficking, the inspector general said in his report. In 2020, a 16-year-old girl who had gone missing from foster care was found dead on an Arizona highway, and officials concluded she had been trafficked.

The National Foster Youth Institute estimates that 60 percent of child sex-trafficking victims have been in foster care or another part of the child welfare system.

In 2014, Congress passed the Preventing Sex Trafficking Act, which required states to develop policies and procedures for “expeditiously locating any child missing from foster care” and “determining the child’s experiences while absent from care, including screening the child to determine if the child is a possible sex-trafficking victim.”

In 268 of the 413 cases the agency reviewed, or 65%, no evidence of screening for sex trafficking was found.

Many screenings that were done were inadequate, the inspector general determined.

“One screener asked a child if the child had ‘engaged in risky behaviors’ while missing from foster care, with no clarifications as to what risky behaviors may entail or any additional questions,” said the inspector general’s report, which was overseen by Abbi Warmker, a deputy regional inspector general for evaluation and inspections in the Kansas City, Missouri, regional office.

The questions states should be asking, the report said, include: “Did anyone ask you to do anything in exchange for money, food, a place to stay, or anything else?” or “Where did you stay?” or “How did you get food?” or “Did anyone make you or ask you to do anything that made you feel uncomfortable?” or “Did anyone ask you to take or send inappropriate photos?”

When children go missing, “they don’t have shelter, they don’t have food, they don’t have water — what we find is that they are kind of at the mercy of the streets,” Whitley said. “They may get caught up in sex trafficking just to survive.”

Previous reports by the Health and Human Services inspector general have found problems in the foster care system.

A 2020 report determined that Kansas did not ensure that all foster care group homes complied with state licensing requirements related to the health and safety of children in those homes.

In March 2021, the watchdog found that some states lack oversight systems to ensure that every child victim has a court representative, and it found that challenges impede some states’ ability to appoint a representative for every child victim. 

In September, the inspector general reported that the Missouri state foster care agency rarely tried to reduce children’s risk of going missing, failed to protect all children who were missing from foster care and did not effectively use resources to assist in locating them.