December 13, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
British children in foster care are voting with their feet. The BBC reports they’re running away from foster homes at rates that are high and rising (BBC, 12/11/15). It’s tough to tease out the exact information from the incompetently written BBC article, but I’ll try.
The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) keeps data on kids who run away from foster homes.
Ofsted recorded 5,055 children as missing between April 2014 and March 2015, compared with 4,245 in the previous year - a 19% rise.
That’s out of a total foster care population of about 85,000. So about 6% of kids in foster care chose to leave the last year for which data are available. Or maybe it’s over three times that number.
The number of missing incidents increased by 29%, to 17,175, between 2014-15 and 2013-14.
What the difference is between 5,055 missing children and 17,175 “missing incidents,” I don’t know and nothing in the article makes clear. Are there 5,055 currently missing children, i.e. the remaining 12,000 + have been found and returned? I have no idea.
But whatever the case, British officials are concerned.
Ofsted said there were grave risks tied to children going missing from care.
The problem and dangers associated with children going missing from care were highlighted by the investigation into child sexual abuse in Rochdale.
Ann Coffey, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults, said: "Going missing is a key indicator that a child might be in great danger.
"When children go missing, they are at very serious risk of physical abuse, sexual exploitation and sometimes so desperate they will rob or steal to survive."
These incidents don’t seem to involve kids who decide to take a couple of days off to hang out with their friends and skip school. No, the majority are gone for over four weeks. That too is up from previous years.
Children were also going missing for longer periods during 2014-15 than previous years, particularly those missing from council-placed foster homes.
In 2014-15, 68% of children who were missing for more than 28 days were in council placements, compared with 60% in 2013-14.
Twenty-eight days is a long time for a child to be missing. Going missing for four weeks would require a child to find housing, food and money, all of which could be difficult or impossible. So yes, the risks for children who are detached from adult care and supervision can be grave indeed.
So why do the kids take such risks just to get away from foster homes? It’s an obvious question, but one the BBC piece doesn’t answer except to say this:
The data shows that in a quarter of reports, the reason for the missing incident was unknown.
That means that, in 75% of the cases, the reason is known. But the BBC was too incurious to ask the obvious question. Still, we can go back 11 months to this article that ventures a very partial explanation for why so many kids, deemed to be at such risk from their families that they’re placed in foster care, leave that care (BBC, 1/14/15).
According to the Ofsted statistics, during the year 2013-14, 4,245 children and young people were reported to have gone missing from foster care - 900 more than in the previous year.
Contact with family or friends was the reason given in nearly half (6,596) the cases.
(There are those mysterious statistics again. Some 4,245 children were missing in the previous year 6,596 = half those cases?)
Suffice it to say that half the kids left foster care because they wanted to be with their families and friends. That is, the environment that governmental officials decided was too dangerous to leave the children in was more enticing to them than were their foster homes.
That of course roughly reflects something we know about foster children in the United States. Once they age out of foster care at age 18, astonishing numbers of them simply return home. As far as I know, the United States doesn’t keep data on foster care runaways, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that (a) a lot of kids flee foster care and (b) when they do, a large percentage of them return to their biological parents.
Oh, remember the 25% of British foster care runaways about whom we don’t know the reason for their flight? Well, Ofsted is supposed to know why they leave.
A Department for Education spokesman said: "We are absolutely clear that there is nothing more important than keeping children safe.
"That is why we have placed a duty on councils to interview children who return from going missing within 72 hours, and for the first time ever we are collecting national data for all children who go missing from care, not just those missing for 24 hours.
"We have also repeatedly written to councils telling them they must improve the quality of data on children missing from care."
Jolly good, but it’s not working.
Still, I applaud the British government for gathering information on the number of missing children and their reasons for leaving foster care. It’s something we would do well to do in the U.S.
But whatever we do here, this is yet more evidence that foster care should be a last resort when considering what to do with a child suffering abuse or neglect at home. Many studies demonstrate that foster care is worse for kids on a wide range of measures than is parental care. Now it seems that, for significant numbers of children, the path to foster care doesn’t stop there. It extends to the streets that can be a cold, dangerous place even for adults.
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