TOPEKA (TNS) — More than 70 foster children are missing in Kansas, the companies running the state's foster care system said Tuesday.
Lawmakers were concerned that Kansas Department for Children and Families Secretary Phyllis Gilmore appeared unaware that three sisters have been missing from a northeast Kansas foster home since Aug. 26.
Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, told a child welfare task force meeting that when she raised the missing children with DCF on Tuesday, the agency knew nothing.
"I am flabbergasted," Kelly said. "I used to work in this world years and years ago and I understand that where you have teenagers, you will have runners and they will go and they will do this kind of stuff."
"But the fact that the person in charge of the wards of the state has no idea that these kids are missing from her custody is just astounding to me."
After the meeting, Gilmore said she could not discuss the three missing sisters, ages 15, 14 and 12, who police think fled their foster home in Tonganoxie. The Kansas City Star reported on their case earlier Tuesday, prompting Kelly to question Gilmore and others.
"You heard everyone expressing that it is extremely concerning and worrisome, especially when many of them are teenage girls in the light of the issues surrounding human trafficking," Gilmore said.
But she also said that in many cases, children have left to go back to their biological families or other people with whom they have a relationship in order to try to not be in foster care. Gilmore referenced one task force member's comment that at times children who have fled will call to say they are safe but won't say where they are.
"So it isn't always a tragedy but some certainly can be and that's why we have to take it all very seriously," Gilmore said.
KVC Kansas, one of the foster care contractors, said it has 38 missing children. The other company, Saint Francis Community Services, said 36 are missing in its system.
Chad Anderson, chief clinical officer at KVC Kansas, one of the contractors, told a child welfare task force that the number of missing represented about 1 percent of the foster care population and is in line with the national average.
Still, he acknowledged the contractor could do a better job.
"I don't know that we as contractors have shared as much in terms of missing youth and the day to day as we probably should," Anderson said.
Rep. Linda Gallagher, R-Lenexa, said she was shocked at the number of missing children. Even if the number missing is in line with the national average, she said, it is still too many.
She also said it was "unbelievable" that Gilmore didn't know about the missing sisters.
"The secretary should know all the time if we have any kids that are missing from the system. She should be notified and should be aware of all efforts being made to locate them," Gallagher said.
Anderson said the contractors update DCF every 30 days about missing children.
Rep. Steve Alford, a Ulysses Republican who chairs the task force, said after the meeting that he wasn't really surprised.
"There's a break between DCF and the contracting," he said. "Once the children -- from I think from the court goes into the possession of the secretary -- she hands them off to the contractors and it's their responsibility, you know, it's kind of like out of sight, out of mind in a lot of aspects."
This is the second meeting of a state child welfare task force that has produced revelations concerning to lawmakers. At a meeting in September, the foster care contractors said that children stayed overnight in the contractors' offices more than 100 times over the past year because places able or willing to accept them couldn't be found.
Max Londberg of the Kansas City Star contributed to this story.