Foster Care Children Often Go Missing: Risk of Sex Trafficking High
A May 2022 inspector general report for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) found that children who disappeared from foster care "were unaccounted for on average 34 days." The HHS OIG investigation analyzed data from 45 state agencies. Nine states, according to the report showed children "were gone for more than 50 days on average" leaving them vulnerable to "HIV infection, sex trafficking, substance abuse, and involvement with the justice system."
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) currently reports that at "any given time in the U.S., there are more than 400,000 children in the care of social services." Foster children are among the most vulnerable children in society and "many of them become victims of child sex trafficking."
During 2022, as of December 31, statistics compiled by the FBI contained in the National Crime Information Center's (NCIC's) Missing Person and Unidentified Person Files showed there were a total of 97,127 missing person records. Of those, juveniles under the age of 18 accounted for 30,522 or 31% of the missing. And, 41% of the total were juveniles under age 21 (39, 504 missing persons).
Federal Law HR 4980, passed in 2014, requires the reporting of children who go missing from social service care. State agencies are required to report missing foster children to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) within 24 hours of the agency learning the child is missing.
A baseline of data was set in 2014 from several organizations who track missing children data. A 2014 report from the Better Care Network cited research from 2001 that showed
"100,000 and 300,000 youth were “at risk” for commercial sexual exploitation annually in the United States. In addition, in 2014, approximately 1.6 million children ran away every year in the United States.Youth who have had contact with the child welfare system are at a higher risk for commercial sexual exploitation than children who have not had involvement in the child welfare system."
NCMEC data from the 2013 through 2015 period showed in 2013, 1 in 7 children who were in social service network were trafficked. In 2014 it was 1 in 6, and by 2015 1 in 5 runaways were trafficked.
"No One Notices When Foster Care Children Go Missing"
Most of these stories of missing children from social services go completely untold. One young girl who was in the social services system reported "there's no amber alert for foster care children when they go missing—no posters, no flyers, no psa. We go missing and nobody cares." This is the very thing, she added, that makes them most vulnerable to "exploiters. Exploiters know that for foster children, there's not going to be anybody looking for us."
Alarmingly, many of these children go missing multiple times. The 2022 report states:
"Between July 2018 and December 2020, state agencies recorded more than 110,000 episodes of missing kids involving roughly 44,000 of the more than 1 million children in foster care during the course of the study. In five states — Nevada, Illinois, New York, Florida and Connecticut — children who went missing did so an average of five to seven times."
2019 HHS OIG CMFC Report
A 2019 NCMEC Children Missing from Care (CMFC) report estimated that a large percentage of children who go missing, went missing at least once previously. (78%) The report also states that the
"the second most common endangerment was alcohol/drug use (49%), followed by a mental illness diagnosis (39%), suicidal tendencies (16%), likely child sex trafficking victimization (16%), self-harm tendencies (14%), having a medical condition (11%), possible gang involvement (11%), carrying a weapon (5%), a history of pregnancy (6% of all female children), and having a special needs condition (3%)."
Child sex trafficking is among the most dangerous threats to missing children. Recovery times for victims of child trafficking are generally longer than for other cohorts. According to the CMFC report,
"The majority of likely child sex trafficking victims were female (94%) and between 15 and 17 years of age (84%). Recovery times for children likely to have been victimized through child sex trafficking were longer than children who were not likely to have been victimized through sex trafficking (an average of 40 days and a median of seven days, versus a mean of 35 days and a median of seven days)"
2022 HHS OIG CMFC Report
In 2022, NCMEC reported that 18 % of the children reported missing to NCMEC who left social service care "were likely victims of child sex trafficking," a 2% increase over data from 2019. The 2022 HHS OIG report found there were "110,446 missing children episodes during our audit period."
2023 HHS OIG CMFC Report
The HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) Report from 2023 examined "State agencies' efforts to ensure that missing children are reported to law enforcement for entry into the NCIC database as required by Federal statute." The OIG audited included "74, 353 missing children episodes in which the child was missing 2 calendar days or longer at any time during the period July 1, 2018, to December 31, 2020." The OIG selected "a stratified random sample of 100 missing children episodes," asking the State agencies to respond in a survey. The audit found that some of the agencies "did not ensure that some children who went missing from foster care were reported to law enforcement."
Of the 100 missing children in the 2023 sample, "86 episodes were reported in a timely manner." However, 8 were not reported in a timely manner and 6 were never reported at all. On the basis of that sample, the OIG projected
"that the State agencies did not report 13,983 of the 74,353 missing children episodes in accordance with Federal requirements. Specifically, an estimated 5,659 missing children episodes during our audit period were not reported within 24 hours after the State agencies were notified that the child was missing, and an additional estimated 8,324 missing children episodes during our audit period were never reported for entry into the NCIC database."
How Does NCMEC Help Missing and Exploited Children?
The Children Missing from Care (CMFC) initiative requires immediate reporting of a child who has gone missing (within 24 hours). NCMEC was created in 1984 and "designated by Congress to serve as the national clearinghouse on issues relating to missing and exploited children." NCMEC provides information on services for missing children, guidance on reporting, policy guidelines, and resources and information on child sex trafficking."