Responding to Youth Missing From Foster Care - North Carolina

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Protocols for Reporting Children Missing From Care to Law Enforcement

Citation: Child Welf. Man., Agency Plan for Abducted and Runaway Children

In policy: Upon learning a child is missing, county child welfare agencies must notify law enforcement immediately. Placement providers must immediately report any missing child or youth to a local law enforcement agency and the county child welfare services agency. The placement provider must obtain the number of the missing person report from the law enforcement officer taking the report and provide the report number to the caseworker.

When a child or youth that the county child welfare services agency has legal responsibility for is missing, the agency must do the following:

  • Provide immediate verbal notification to the appropriate law enforcement agency, follow up by sending a subsequent written notification within 48 hours, and obtain a copy of the law enforcement report for the case file
  • Provide immediate notification (no later than 24 hours) to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and provide NCMEC with the missing person's report number and current photograph of the missing child

Information that must be shared with law enforcement includes the following:

  • The child's full name, aliases and nicknames, age and date of birth, Social Security number, driver's license number (if applicable), and other biographical information
  • A description of the child (i.e., height; weight; hair, eye, and skin color; whether the child has braces; clothes worn, such as book bag and shoes; whether the child uses contact lenses, glasses, or dentures; whether the child has gold or silver teeth; any physical, hearing, speech, or vision impairments; moles; scars; body piercings; tattoos) and recent photographs
  • Physical or psychological conditions, developmental delays, or any condition that may affect the ability of the child to respond to environmental dangers
  • Other factors of endangerment, such as young age, hazardous location, medical needs, disability, etc.
  • Medication and/or history of suspected substance use/abuse
  • A copy of the most recent court order granting legal custody of the child and other relevant facts about the child's custody status
  • Type of missing episode (if known), including runaway, family abduction, nonfamily abduction, or other
  • When, where, and with whom the child was last seen
  • Possible method of travel (e.g., car, bicycle, public transportation, on foot)
  • Names and addresses of friends; relatives; present and former placement providers, including child care facilities/staff; and acquaintances
  • Locations the child or youth is known to frequent
  • Suspected destinations and accomplices
  • Prior disappearances and outcomes

If a child is identified as 'high risk,' this must be communicated to law enforcement. It is important to inform law enforcement about any circumstances that could severely compromise the safety of a child who is missing. These circumstances include anything that would fall in the definition of a high-risk child, including the following:

  • The child has a developmental disability that impairs the child's ability to care for him- or herself.
  • The child is pregnant and/or parenting, and the infant/child is believed to be with the parent.
  • The child is missing more than 24 hours before being reported to law enforcement.
  • The child is believed to be in a life-threatening situation.
  • The child's absence is inconsistent with his or her established pattern of behavior and the deviation is not readily explained.
  • The child is known or believed to be a victim of human trafficking.
  • Other circumstances are involved in the disappearance that would cause a reasonable person to conclude that the child should be considered 'at imminent risk.'

Protocols for Locating Children Missing From Care

Citation: Child Welf. Man., Agency Plan for Abducted and Runaway Children

When a child or youth that the county child welfare services agency has legal responsibility for is missing, the agency must provide immediate verbal notification to the child's family (if the child is not believed to have been abducted by family members) and the guardian ad litem and discuss collaborative efforts that all parties can take to locate the child.

Upon notification that a child is missing, the supervisor must do the following:

  • Within 24 hours, confirm the caseworker has completed all the required reports and contacts
  • Assist the caseworker in developing and implementing a plan that contains specific strategies to locate the missing child and ensure the child's safety as quickly as possible
  • Meet with the caseworker on a weekly basis after the initial reporting requirements are completed
  • If the child is high risk, obtain and review daily progress reports from the caseworker that include the following:
    • Ongoing strategies and efforts to determine the child's whereabouts
    • Contacts with law enforcement and others
    • Additional steps taken to assist in finding the child
    • A placement plan for when the child is located

When a child's whereabouts are unknown, and/or the circumstances of the child's disappearance are unknown, the caseworker must make a sustained effort to locate the child by contacting the following individuals, agencies, or organizations each week:

  • Local police, sheriff's office, or other law enforcement agency working to locate the child
  • Local emergency shelters and homeless youth programs
  • The most recent caregiver and any other caregivers with whom the child is known to have had a close or long-term relationship
  • Relatives, including the child's parents and siblings
  • Neighbors and landlord of the child's last known address
  • Close friends and classmates of the child, including any known boyfriends, girlfriends, or anyone else in the community with whom the child may have developed a significant relationship
  • Teachers, counselors, and other school personnel from the school the child last attended, if there is knowledge that the child had close relationships with persons at the school
  • Employees of the county child welfare services agency or placement provider who may have knowledge of the possible location of the child
  • Probation offices, when appropriate
  • County juvenile or adult detention centers

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

Citation: Child Welf. Man., Agency Plan for Abducted and Runaway Children

When deciding whether to return the child or youth to the placement they were in before being reported as runaway or missing, the caseworker should interview the caregiver and the child separately to determine why the child ran away.

Determining the Suitability of Current and Subsequent Placements

Citation: Child Welf. Man., Agency Plan for Abducted and Runaway Children

When a child is located, careful consideration should be given to their ongoing placement. When deciding whether to return the child or youth to the placement they were in before being reported as runaway or missing, the caseworker should interview the caregiver and the child separately to determine why the child ran away. Caseworkers should review the reasons provided with a supervisor to determine if the reasons for running away are related to the placement itself. Caseworkers and supervisors should determine whether placement stabilization or other services would be beneficial.

If the child or youth has a history of running away or indicates that he or she will not accept any placement selected by the agency, the caseworker should discuss with the child or youth where he or she wants to live or what type of placement he or she is willing to accept. Such alternate placements may include the following:

  • A relative with whom the child is comfortable and has a relationship
  • A former caregiver or another adult with whom the child has formed a relationship and with whom the child expresses a desire to be placed
  • An independent transitional living arrangement, if appropriate
  • Reunification with the child's parent(s)

Any or all these options must meet certain requirements, depending on the placement type, including any necessary approval by the court.

Assessing the Child's Experiences While Absent From Care

Citation: Child Welf. Man., Agency Plan for Abducted and Runaway Children

The caseworker must make every effort to return the child to an authorized placement. In addition to making required contacts listed above, the following information must also be sought from the missing child:

  • The child's location at the time of the contacts
  • Any information about where they are staying currently or for any period
  • Any information about the individuals they may be with
  • Information about the health and safety of the child or youth
  • If the youth is parenting, the health and safety of the infant or child
  • Whether they are attending school and where
  • Whether they are employed and where
  • Any contact they have made with family members, friends, or probation and parole agents, etc.

If the child or youth was missing from care for another reason (i.e., they did not run away), caseworkers should carefully assess the factors associated with the child or youth's disappearance and their experiences while absent from care to address possible safety and risk issues and plan for placement accordingly.

Timeframes for Closing a Child's Placement After Running Away

This issue is not addressed in the statutes and regulations reviewed.