Responding to Youth Missing From Foster Care - Virginia

Date: May 2020

Protocols for Reporting Children Missing From Care to Law Enforcement

Citation: Child & Family Serv. Man., Part E, § 17.13

From the Child & Family Services Manual: The local department of social services (LDSS) shall provide immediate verbal notification to the appropriate local law enforcement agency and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) within 24 hours upon receiving information on any child who is missing or running from care. The LDSS should follow up by sending subsequent written notification within 48 hours or as required by law enforcement protocol. The LDSS should ask law enforcement to enter information about the child into the FBI's National Crime Information Center database, which includes information on missing persons.

Once a report is filed with law enforcement, the LDSS shall contact NCMEC. NCMEC can only accept reports from the legal guardian. Information to be shared with law enforcement and NCMEC (as appropriate) includes the following:

  • Biographical information and photographs
  • Names and addresses of friends, relatives, present and former foster parents and placement staff, and acquaintances
  • Suspected destinations
  • Prior disappearances and outcome

Other information regarding special circumstances that should be highlighted in communications with law enforcement officials may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • The child is younger than age 13.
  • The child or youth is intellectually disabled.
  • The child or youth is drug dependent, including prescribed medication and/or illegal substances and if the dependency is life-threatening.
  • The child or youth was missing more than 24 hours before being reported to law enforcement.
  • The child or youth is believed to be in a life-threatening situation.
  • The child or youth is believed to be in the company of adults who may endanger his or her safety.
  • Other circumstances involved in the disappearance would cause a reasonable person to conclude that the child or youth may be considered 'at imminent risk.'

If the worker believes that a child or youth has unwillingly left the foster care placement or has been removed by an unauthorized person, the worker should request that the child be placed on the Amber Alert system when making the report to law enforcement. The local law enforcement officials will determine if Amber Alert criteria are met and will activate the network when appropriate.

Protocols for Locating Children Missing From Care

Citation: Child & Family Serv. Man., Part E, § 17.13

When a child or youth has runaway or is discovered to be missing from the foster care placement and the child or youth's whereabouts are unknown, the service worker should do the following:

  • Provide immediate verbal notification to the following:
    • The parents, unless the parents cannot be found or have had their parental rights terminated
    • The child's or youth's guardian ad litem (GAL)
  • Provide notification of the disappearance within 24 hours, or as soon as possible, to the following:
    • Family members
    • Service providers
    • Other appropriate persons

The service worker should discuss with all parties the collaborative efforts they can all take to locate the child or youth.

The service worker shall continue to make efforts to locate the child or youth each month that the child or youth remains missing or on runaway status. Data show most youth run to friends, family, or the streets. It is very important to know who and how to contact their friends or family. It is also very important to be aware of the youth's hangouts and activities.

Efforts to locate the child or youth shall include, but are not limited to, contacting the following:

  • Law enforcement
  • Birth parents, family members, and relatives
  • Former caregivers
  • Other agencies that may be providing services

Efforts should also be made to track the child or youth's activities via Facebook or other social media sites. It will be necessary to work with the police or NCMEC to obtain access to restricted pages.

The case of a missing child or youth should be staffed on a quarterly basis with a supervisor to ensure that efforts made to locate the child or youth have been sufficient and no other actions are needed.

When information regarding the possible location of a missing child or youth is received, the service worker should staff immediately with a supervisor to assess the most appropriate course of action to secure the child's safety.

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

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

Determining the Suitability of Current and Subsequent Placements

Citation: Child & Family Serv. Man., Part E, § 17.13

If a youth runs to see his or her birth family, the worker should assess current safety issues and consider placement with family or an increase in family visits.

Assessing the Child's Experiences While Absent From Care

Citation: Child & Family Serv. Man., Part E, § 17.13

When the child returns to the foster care placement after being reported to law enforcement as a runaway or missing person, the service worker should ensure that appropriate law enforcement are notified immediately of the child or youth's return but no later than 24 hours after the service worker was notified. When the child or youth had been placed on the Amber Alert system, the service should notify law enforcement within 1 hour of the child or youth's return, consistent with the protocol established by local law enforcement.

Parents and the GAL should be notified as soon as possible after the service worker has been notified of the child's return. Other parties notified of the runaway or missing status of the child should be notified of the child or youth's return within 24 hours but no later than 48 hours of the child or youth's return.

Engaging the youth is essential when they return. It is important for the youth to feel welcome, supported, and cared about. Their immediate needs should be met. The worker should always talk to a youth about a run episode. The main focus of the discussion is to determine if the youth is okay and to gather enough information to develop a plan to help the youth not to want to run in the future. The information obtained in this process may prevent a future run and help the service worker develop targeted information.

Some questions to ask may include the following:

  • Are you ok?
  • Do you need any supports, services, or medical attention?
  • What do you need right now to feel safe?
  • Is there anything I can do to make it easier to stay?
  • Was there anything that would have changed your mind to keep from running?
  • What did you hope to happen when you left?
  • Did you have a plan on how to take care of yourself and did it work out?
  • What made you decide to return?
  • What are your plans for the future?
  • What do you want to see happen in the next 3 months?

LDSS shall report to law enforcement within 24 hours after receiving information on a child or youth who has been identified as being a sex trafficking victim.

Timeframes for Closing a Child's Placement After Running Away

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