Responding to Youth Missing From Foster Care - Georgia

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Protocols for Reporting Children Missing From Care to Law Enforcement

Citation: DFCS Child Welf. Pol. Man., # 19.22

In policy: The Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) shall report immediately, and in no case later than 24 hours after receipt, information on missing or abducted children to the law enforcement authorities, for entry into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

If the child is determined to be missing from a foster care placement, the social services case manager (SSCM) will do the following:

  • Contact the NCMEC within 24 hours of the child's disappearance by calling the hotline number at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678) or making a report on the website (http://cmfc.missingkids.org/ReportHere) and completing the online form designed for child welfare caseworkers, as follows:
    • If the initial contact is made before there is an active missing person police report, contact NCMEC again once there is an active missing person police report
    • Advise NCMEC not to identify a child as being in foster care during any of its activities
    • Provide the child's name, date of birth, Social Security number, placement address, and contact information for the SSCM
  • Follow up with local law enforcement within 24 hours of filing the missing person report to confirm that the missing child has been added to the NCIC database of the FBI

Protocols for Locating Children Missing From Care

Citation: DFCS Child Welf. Pol. Man., # 19.22

DFCS shall have protocols for expeditiously locating any child missing from foster care, as follows:

  • Notify the DFCS Missing Children Team within 24 hours
  • File a runaway report in juvenile court within 2 business days that includes efforts made to locate the child

If a child is suspected to be missing, the SSCM will do the following:

  • Contact the caregiver and other household members to determine when and where the child was last seen, the child's state of mind at that time, and if any of the child's possessions are missing
  • In conjunction with the caregiver, coordinate and conduct a comprehensive search for the child that includes, but is not limited to, the following:
    • Attempting to contact the child on his/her cell phone or social media
    • Contacting the child's friends and persons with whom the child associates to determine if they have knowledge of the child's whereabouts
    • Visiting the locations where the child was last seen and where the child frequents
    • If the child is the temporary custody of DFCS, contacting the child's parents and family members to determine if they are aware of the child's whereabouts

If the child is determined to be missing, the SSCM will do the following:

  • Ask the caregiver if he or she has already filed a missing person report with law enforcement
  • Contact local law enforcement to confirm that a missing person report has been filed
  • If the missing person report has not been filed, file the missing person report immediately but no later than 24 hours of determining that a child is missing
  • Notify the child's parent(s) as soon as possible if the child is in foster care
  • Solicit the parents' assistance in locating the child, if appropriate
  • Notify the DFCS Missing Children Team immediately but no later than 24 hours after a child is determined to be missing
  • Notify the juvenile court within 2 business days of the child's disappearance by filing a runaway report
  • Notify the following:
    • The child's attorney, guardian ad litem (GAL), and court-appointed special advocate (CASA), if applicable
    • Any other division/department that also serves the child, including the child's school officials, probation officers, attorneys, service providers, etc.
  • In conjunction with the caregivers, continue a comprehensive search to locate the child, as follows:
    • Interview the child's parents and other caregivers to determine the child's state of mind when last observed
    • Revisit locations where the child was last seen
    • Continue to make attempts to contact the child via cell phone, social media, etc.
    • Utilize voicemail, text messaging, and other messaging to communicate to the child the need to return or go to a safe place (e.g., police station, fire department, hospital)
    • Interview other children at the child's placement to determine if the child shared his/her plans or contact information for other friends
    • Inquire about the child's use of cell phones or social media
    • Contact law enforcement to determine if they have made any progress in locating the child
    • Continue to follow-up with the child's friends, parents, extended family members, and other adults with whom the child had a relationship for any updated information
  • Address the following monthly with the supervisor and every 90 days (at a minimum) with the county director if the child remains missing:
    • Efforts made to locate the child
    • Additional strategies that may be employed to locate the child
    • The child's history of running away (if applicable) and whether the child seems to be running to a specific place or person
    • Whether it the child is known to be or is at risk of being a victim of commercial sexual exploitation
  • Encourage the child to return every time there is any contact made with the missing child

Determining the Factors That Led to a Child's Absence From Care

Citation: DFCS Child Welf. Pol. Man., # 19.22

DFCS shall have protocols for determining the primary factors that contributed to the child's running away or otherwise being absent from care and, to the extent possible and appropriate, responding to those factors in current and subsequent placements.

Determining the Suitability of Current and Subsequent Placements

Citation: DFCS Child Welf. Pol. Man., # 19.22

DFCS shall develop a written runaway prevention plan for youth at risk of runaway behavior within 7 calendar days following a youth returning from a runaway episode.

A runaway prevention plan is a method of addressing circumstances and situations that might lead to a runaway episode or a recurrence of runaway behavior. The plan is a written document that helps to promote clarity and accountability. To be more effective, the runaway prevention plan should be developed collaboratively with children, their caregivers, and others working with the children. The plan needs to be realistic, positive, and based on a child's strengths, which will increase the chances of success. Since people and circumstances change, the plan should be updated to ensure it remains applicable to current circumstances.

When developing the plan, the SSCM should do the following:

  • Help children identify their strengths in language that is easy to understand (e.g., good at being on time, friendly, respectful, athletic)
  • Ask children what has prevented them from running away in the past (e.g., talking to their case manager, listening to music, talking to a friend, taking a walk, sports)
  • Try to help children identify triggers, feelings or behaviors that occur when they have thoughts of running away (e.g., feeling overwhelmed, trapped, not knowing what to do)
  • Ask children how their case manager and caregivers can best support them in remaining in their placement
  • List any other supports that may be needed (e.g., counseling, mentoring)
  • Include contact information for DFCS and other significant persons in the youth's support network, such as individuals the youth may contact at any time they find themselves in an unsafe situation or simply wish to return from runaway status

The SSCM will ask children, their caregivers, and all involved parties to sign the plan and give everyone a copy. This makes the plan feel like a real commitment between all the parties involved.

Some tips for plan development include the following:

  • If a child runs away to see friends, work with caregivers to increase activities the child has with friends.
  • If a child runs away to see birth family, increase family visits (if possible) and make efforts to secure placement with a relative with whom the child is willing to remain. If the agency can limit trauma to the child/young adult and increase connections with supportive people, the child/young adult will be more likely to make progress toward a stable adulthood.
  • If a child runs away to reunite with parents or caregivers from whom he/she was removed, determine if the factors that prevented reunification in the past are still relevant. If not, follow the department requirements for pursuing the possibility of reunification.
  • If a child runs away to use drugs, refer the child for a substance use assessment and any recommended treatment.
  • If a child runs away because of problems with school, increase educational supports.
  • If a child runs away because of conflicts with the foster caregivers, work with the child and the caregivers to resolve the conflicts. If it is not possible to resolve the conflicts between the child and caregivers, then seek a more suitable placement for the child.

Assessing the Child's Experiences While Absent From Care

Citation: DFCS Child Welf. Pol. Man., # 19.22

DFCS shall have protocols for determining the child's experiences while absent from care, including screening the child to determine if the child is a possible sex trafficking victim.

When the child is located, the SSCM will do the following:

  • Make face-to-face contact with the child within 24 hours.
  • Notify the parent and the placement resource that the child in foster care has been located immediately, but no later than 24 hours.
  • Notify the DFCS Missing Children Team immediately, but no later than 24 hours after a child is located.
  • Notify law enforcement, the court, GAL, CASA, and any other entities actively assisting DFCS with the search.
  • Call the NCMEC hotline number immediately to notify them that the missing child has been located, if they did not locate the child.
  • Make every effort to place children previously missing from foster care in the same placement they were in prior to becoming missing, when appropriate.
  • Interview the child within 24 hours of the child's return to determine factors that contributed to the child being missing, the child's experiences while absent from care, and to assess whether the child is at risk or is a victim of sex trafficking.
  • Arrange for a medical examination within 48 hours of the child's return. In child protective services cases, the parent must obtain the medical examination.
  • Refer the child and family for appropriate services to address identified issues related to the runaway episode or other identified at-risk behaviors.
  • Develop a written runaway prevention plan with the child, their caregivers, and others working with the child to address situations that might lead to a recurrence of the runaway behavior.
  • Visit the child more frequently (weekly or more often as needed) to work with the child and caregiver(s) to stabilize their relationship and to address the factors that led to the runaway episode and prevent further disruption.
  • Update the case plan when there are newly identified or modified services, treatment, and/or needs based on the runaway episode.
  • Document all case management activities.

If the results of the assessment suggest a child is a victim of sex trafficking, the SSCM will do the following:

  • Contact the Georgia Bureau of Investigation immediately, but no later than within 24 hours, to provide notification and to discuss next steps
  • Follow the procedures outlined in the Commercial Sexual Exploitation/Domestic Minor/Sex Trafficking Case Management Protocol
  • Obtain services specifically to address the issues for the child determined to be at risk or a victim of sex trafficking

Timeframes for Closing a Child's Placement After Running Away

Citation: DFCS Child Welf. Pol. Man., # 19.22

DFCS shall do the following:

  • Notify the Revenue Maximization Specialist (RMS) within 24 hours of determining that a child in foster care is missing and within 24 hours of when the child is located
  • Maintain an open foster care case on any missing child in the temporary or permanent custody of DFCS to continue efforts to locate the child and address the concerns that brought the child into foster care

If the child is determined to be missing, the SSCM will send a Notification of Change to the RMS to notify them that the child is on runaway status or otherwise missing from the foster care placement. The RMS will terminate title IV-E reimbursements for a title IV-E-eligible child.

When the child is located, the SSCM will submit a new title IV-E application, if a child returns to foster care from a runaway/missing episode. NOTE: New determinations of all eligibility factors, including judicial determinations of 'contrary to the welfare' and 'reasonable efforts,' are required if the child returns to foster care after 6 months, as this is considered a new placement episode for title IV-E.