Nearly 1,800 children under the care of the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services were reported missing between 2018 and 2022, according to a bipartisan Senate investigation.
Sen. Jon Ossoff, chairman of the Senate Human Rights Subcommittee, announced the findings Friday at the Georgia Covenant House, which serves young people struggling with homelessness. The Georgia Democrat is leading the investigation along with Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee.
“These figures are deeply disturbing because they are more than just numbers. These are children,” Ossoff said. “And according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and in my opinion the leadership here at Covenant House has a lot of experience with such issues, children who disappear from care are more vulnerable to human trafficking, sexual exploitation, etc., among other threats to their health and safety. “
The data came from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at the subcommittee’s request.
Geographic and demographic information about the missing children was not immediately available, nor was there data on how long they had been missing. Ossoff said the 1,790 missing children were involved in about 2,500 reports, suggesting some were reported missing more than once.
The NCMEC recognizes several types of missing children, including “vulnerable runaways,” children under 18 who go missing of their own accord and whose guardians are unaware of their whereabouts. Between 2013 and 2022, 94% of children missing by government agencies were vulnerable runaways.
During this period, 99% of NCMEC reports were resolved, meaning the child had returned home, was in police custody, or did not return home, but the parent or guardian was satisfied with the situation. Less than 1% of children reported missing were recovered deceased.
There is no waiting period for missing children to be reported to law enforcement. NCMEC data shows that between 2013 and 2022, the average child missing from care was missing for 46 days, with the average period of absence being nine days.
The data did not include how many children in the care of other state governments went missing during the same period. A report from the Office of Inspector General found that 74,353 such children were reported missing for more than 24 hours in 46 states (excluding Georgia) between July 1, 2018 and December 31, 2020.
The same OIG report found that an estimated 34,869 missing child episodes during that period, or 47%, were never reported to NCMEC. State foster care facilities are required by federal law to report missing children.
According to Youth.gov, an interagency federal government website, “Estimates vary, but up to one-third of youth in foster care may escape foster care at some point.”
DFCS did not respond to a request for comment.
The new revelations come just two days after Ossoff chaired a subcommittee hearing on an internal audit of DFCS that found the department failed to meet risk assessment and safety management obligations 84% of the time.
Ossoff said the investigation’s findings should not be blamed on front-line DFCS employees.
“There are caseworkers working in this system every day, hard-working, talented, well-meaning people who do good things and work hard in very difficult circumstances,” he said. “So this is by no means an indictment of the people on the front lines who are struggling, often with inadequate resources, to do the right thing for Georgia’s vulnerable children. We are dealing with systemic problems.”
Alie Redd, chief executive of Covenant House, told the Recorder that more than 70% of the children and young adults receiving services there have had previous experiences with DFCS. One of the best ways for the state to address the problem is to facilitate collaboration between different parts of the agency, she said.
“I think there are some systemic things we can work on and break down some areas of the (department of) family and children’s services, workforce development, mental health, education, physical health, housing security and all of those systems and more.” There needs to be “We really need more people to come together because we need to find solutions to close the gaps so that our young people don’t continue to fall through the cracks,” she said.
Ossoff did not provide a timeline for the remainder of the investigation, which began in February after media reported allegations of abuse and neglect of children in DFCS’ care. He noted that investigators have already conducted over 100 interviews, but the endeavor is still in its infancy. He said he hopes to release concrete recommendations at the end of the process and hopes to work with “partners at all levels,” including state officials.
“Now we are once again in the early stages of this investigation,” he said. “I don’t think we are in a position to make any concrete policy recommendations at this point. Positive change starts with the truth, and that is why we are in the process of identifying these facts.”
Ossoff’s office announced Friday afternoon that he would hold a hearing Monday with Georgia juvenile court judges about the investigation and their experiences with Georgia’s foster care system.
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