The administration of Gov. Jeff Colyer responded to bipartisan anxiety about dozens of missing foster care children with intensified investigations that resulted in a one-year reduction in the number of open cases.
The Kansas Department for Children and Families said the agency documented 63 missing or runaway youth in foster care on Aug. 31. DCF said there were 86 missing children on Aug. 31, 2017. These snapshots in time equated to a decline of 26 percent.
Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel, who made shrinking the prevalence of missing children a higher priority at DCF, said in a statement Thursday she was proud of results attained by the agency's new special investigation unit.
"It is exciting to see a decrease," she said. "We will continue to actively look for these youth because even one child missing from placement is one too many. Ensuring their safety is of the utmost importance."
Meier-Hummel was responsible for formulating DCF's response to reports of foster children missing from residential housing and controversy about the decision of state contractors to let hard-to-place children sleep in office buildings.
Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat on the Child Welfare System Task Force created by the Legisalture, said the state's foster care system was in "crisis and needs to be treated as such."
"While some progress has been made, there is still a long way to go," said Kelly, who is a candidate for governor. "Many kids are still missing and too many are sleeping in offices."
The task force created in 2017 identified issues of runaway children and youth sleeping in offices of child-placement organizations as reform priorities. In a preliminary report released in January, the task force also said the system responsible for welfare of thousands of children was plagued by higher turnover of social workers due to "stress, excessive caseloads and low pay."
Members of the task force pointed to a significant decrease in number of beds for children and youth in psychiatric residential treatment facilities in Kansas. The task force raised questions about the excessive length of time for some adoptions to be completed after parental rights were terminated and a lack of funding in recent years for family preservation services.
Meier-Hummel, who receives regular reports on missing or runaway children, said the number of youth absent from home placements fluctuated on a daily basis.
DCF assembled a group of investigators dedicated to looking for these youth. On a regular basis, the agency said, these investigators partnered with foster care contractors and local law enforcement to locate the children. DCF employees participated in sweeps of Wichita and Kansas City.
"Youth that are missing or have run away from placement are at a higher risk of becoming victims of human trafficking," said Kody Johnson, an investigator in the agency's missing and runaway unit.