CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia had 791 reported runaways from its foster care system in 2018 and is on pace to eclipsed that mark this year, state lawmakers learned Tuesday.
State Department of Health and Human Resources Deputy Secretary Jeremiah Samples told members of a legislative interim committee the numbers are “alarming.”
“It’s a problem that is getting worse,” Samples said.
Of the 791 runaways reported last year, 205 were reported as long-term runaways. Samples said the overall numbers so far this year are 651 runaways.
According to Samples, the majority of runaways are classified as “Away from Supervision” and the children are located within a short period of time while others, nearly 100 as of June 12, still haven’t been located.
“To have 95 kids that are missing at a point in time is gut-wrenching,” Samples said.
There’s another 10 to 20 kids a year that age out of state custody that no one has ever found, Samples said.
“What has happened to those children?” Samples asked. “When we talk about sex trafficking and dangers of the modern world–it’s just an alarming number that we have to find some solutions to.”
There were six sex trafficking referrals in 2018.
The state legislature voted earlier this year to allow the DHHR to privatize the foster care system. Bids are currently under review. The opioid epidemic has caused a rapid growth of the number of children in the system.
Samples told lawmakers Wednesday the number of children in foster care in West Virginia has increased by 67 percent since 2013. The increase nationally during that period of time has been 11 percent. Twenty-eight percent of children in care are teenagers. More than 80 percent of kids in foster care are child/neglect abuse cases involving drugs.
Most of of the runaways are boys between the ages of 13 and 17 who have been placed in group homes or emergency shelters for foster children. Fewer of the runaways are actually from foster care families.
Samples said most of the runaways return to their homes where they had been previously removed.
“Children with bad parents still love their parents and that’s who they run to,” Samples said. “Oftentimes we’ll find that parents may not be the most forthcoming about a child being there.”
Samples said when a child runs from a group residential, emergency shelter, or child placing agency, providers must report to law enforcement and the DHHR immediately. If the child runs from a kinship/relative home the assigned caseworker is most often the individual notified. Samples said it adds to the busy load the caseworker already carries.
“This takes time,” he said.
Samples said the DHHR will work with other state agencies and stakeholder groups to develop recommendations for the legislature to consider including:
–Identify policy, system, and practice gaps that impede appropriate data collection and sharing with proposed solutions.
–Assess and propose solution for dedicated resources to finding missing children.
–Develop recommendations that will prevent runaway events from institutional care, ranging from temporary locks, alarm systems, staffing patterns, and supports for the child to get at the core of their desire to elope.
Samples said the health and safety of the children is the top priority.
“Having this number of runaways from state custody, the percentages are just outrageous, it’s something we are committed to finding solutions to,” Samples said.