Responding to Youth Missing From Foster Care - Vermont

Date: May 2020

Protocols for Reporting Children Missing From Care to Law Enforcement

Citation: Fam. Serv. Pol. Man., Policy # 155

From the policy manual: The Department for Children and Families (DCF), Family Services Division caseworker is responsible to take all actions detailed in this policy to locate a child missing from his or her placement and to document all efforts in case notes.

The efforts described below must be completed by the end of the business day:

The caseworker shall immediately notify the appropriate law enforcement agency and provide the child's photograph to them. The law enforcement agency with jurisdiction is of the town from which the child ran away or went missing. If the child is known or suspected to be a victim of trafficking, the worker shall share this information with the law enforcement lead investigator. District staff will consult with the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC) deputy compact administrator on all cases in which trafficking is known or suspected to have occurred.

The caseworker shall ensure a general broadcast communication is issued and the child has been entered into the National Crime Information Center database. Additionally, district staff will report all missing children and youth to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

The caseworker should discuss the use of an Amber Alert in cases where the child has been abducted. A written, notarized report may also be requested by law enforcement. Centralized Intake and Emergency Services (CIES) is responsible for these tasks after hours, on weekends, and holidays.

The caseworker will determine if there are any unusual circumstances that would place the child at a higher level of risk. If unusual circumstances are present, the worker will contact law enforcement immediately to indicate there is a higher level of risk to the child. Unusual circumstances refer to a missing child who meets any of the following criteria:

  • Is under age 13
  • Is believed to be out of an area familiar to him or her
  • Is at increased risk due to age or developmental level
  • Is intellectually or developmentally delayed or has a mental health diagnosis that would increase risk to the child
  • Is substance dependent or requires prescribed medications
  • Was absent for more than 24 hours before being reported to law enforcement
  • Is in a potentially life-threatening situation
  • Is believed to be with others who could endanger his or her welfare
  • Is suspected or known to be a victim of sex trafficking
  • Is currently at risk of self-harm or suicidal ideation
  • Is absent under circumstances inconsistent with his or her established patterns of behavior and this absence cannot be readily explained
  • Disappeared under circumstances that would lead a reasonable person to conclude that the child should be considered at higher risk

Protocols for Locating Children Missing From Care

Citation: Fam. Serv. Pol. Man., Policy # 155

If a child is missing, the caseworker shall notify the child's parents or caregivers as soon as possible but before the end of the day. If the child's parents or caregivers are suspected of facilitating or having knowledge of the runaway€”or harboring or trafficking the child€”the caseworker shall consult with a supervisor and law enforcement before notifying the child's parents or caregivers.

Caseworkers will attempt to ascertain the whereabouts of the child, in conjunction with law enforcement and the Vermont Intelligence Center (VIC), and through contact with family, friends, and other community partners and providers (e.g., school personnel, foster parents, residential staff, other service providers). Any information gathered should be provided to law enforcement.

If it is suspected that the youth ran away with their peers or other youth in DCF custody, coordination should occur between district offices and workers. If the caseworker reasonably suspects the youth is at a specific location, the caseworker should notify the law enforcement agency with jurisdiction and request that the youth be picked up. If the jurisdiction is outside the State of Vermont, the worker will notify and seek consultation from ICPC deputy compact administrator.

The caseworker shall maintain weekly contact with law enforcement and the VIC and update them with any new information. At least weekly, the worker shall continue to make efforts to locate the child in conjunction with law enforcement. This may include, but is not limited to, the following:

  • Contacting the child's friends and family to request information about the child's whereabouts and persons with whom the child may be associating
  • Contacting school personnel from the school the child last attended or at other schools the child previously attended, if it is believed the child maintains a close relationship with persons at that school
  • Contacting the child's adult probation officer, if applicable
  • Contacting any other individuals who are believed to have knowledge of the child's whereabouts
  • Utilizing social media to search for the missing child and determine a possible location based on any updates he or she may have posted

The caseworker and a supervisor shall formally review all efforts to locate the youth within 7 days of the youth's runaway and every 14 days thereafter.

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

Citation: Fam. Serv. Pol. Man., Policy # 155

After the child has been located, the caseworker shall interview the child in person within 7 business days of his or her return to care. Topics caseworkers should cover include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Why did the child leave their previous placement?
  • Did the child feel unsafe in their previous placement?
  • Did anyone encourage the child to leave?

Determining the Suitability of Current and Subsequent Placements

Citation: Fam. Serv. Pol. Man., Policy # 155

The caseworker, supervisor, resource coordinator, and client placement specialist shall discuss plans for the child's placement upon return to DCF care.

Assessing the Child's Experiences While Absent From Care

Citation: Fam. Serv. Pol. Man., Policy # 155

When the child has been located, law enforcement should be notified immediately. Parents or caregivers should be notified that the child has been located as soon as possible but by the end of the day. Division staff will ensure the child's basic needs are met immediately upon their return. Basic needs include safety and protection for the child, safe housing, food, personal hygiene, clothing, medical care, and mental health supports.

The caseworker shall interview the child in-person within 7 business days of his or her return to care and take a photograph of the child at that time. The interview may be conducted in conjunction with law enforcement and shall be when the circumstances of the child's absence are not solely related to running away. If the child is suspected or known to be a victim of trafficking, division staff should discuss with law enforcement the appropriate timing of investigation and/or consultation in order to support the victim and provide a trauma-informed response.

The interview shall be conducted in a nonjudgmental, nonthreatening, comfortable, and child-friendly location when possible. Topics workers should cover include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Where did the child go?
  • What is the first thing the child did after leaving?
  • What else did the child do while he or she was gone?
  • How did the child meet basic needs (e.g., housing, food, clothing)?
  • Did the child perform any sort of sexual act to meet any of his or her basic needs?
  • Who was the child with, if anyone, while absent?
  • Did anyone loan or give the child money?
  • Did anyone provide the child with expensive gifts or favors?
  • Did anyone pressure the child into doing something he or she did not want to do?
  • Did anyone take a photo or video of the child that made him or her uncomfortable?
  • Was the child the victim of a crime (including physical or sexual assault) while he or she was gone? Any affirmative answers should be referred to law enforcement and other service referrals should be considered.
  • Did the child engage in any risky behaviors (e.g., substance use, self-harm, sexual activity, any sexual acts in exchange for basic needs or under the influence of exploitation or cohesion) while he or she was gone?
  • Did the child engage in any behaviors that might put him or her at risk of sexually transmitted infections?
  • What supports or services would the child like to have to help with any experiences he or she had while they were away?
  • What were the best and worst things about being away?
  • Does the child plan to run away again? If so, why?
  • What can the worker do to help prevent the child from not running away again?

When the caseworker knows or suspects that the youth engaged in risky behaviors such as sexual activity or substance use, they will schedule an appointment with the primary care physician. Workers should assess the appropriateness of a SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) exam, health screening, and/or trauma screening. Workers should enlist the help of victim specialists or make victim services referrals as appropriate.

If information is learned that causes division staff to believe a child or youth may have been a victim of sex trafficking while missing or on run, a report of child abuse must be made to CIES. Children and youth under age 18 cannot legally consent to providing sex or sexual acts in exchange for money, drugs, food, clothes, housing, or meeting basic needs. Consultation with the ICPC deputy compact administrator is required for all trafficking cases.

Timeframes for Closing a Child's Placement After Running Away

Citation: Fam. Serv. Pol. Man., Policy # 155

Division staff will update the placement form after the child has been missing or on run for 3 days. When a child has run away or is temporarily absent from a foster home or other placement, payment may continue for up to 15 days if the plan is for the child to return to that placement.