Foster care children are easy prey for predators: They disappear without a real search
Predators think no one will look for these missing kids in foster care. Today, unfortunately, they are right.
Darcy Olsen, Opinion Contributor
Originally published in USA TODAY on February 24, 2022
An estimated 55 children will disappear from America’s foster care system today. For too many, there will be no canvassing of the streets in search of them. No pictures posted. No social media campaigns. Not for these kids.
Anaiah Walker was 16 when she went missing in late 2019. She was living in a group home, and her family says she was a victim of sex trafficking. Five months later, her body – shoeless and disfigured – was found discarded on the median of a freeway. It took the police 12 days to even identify her.
In the past 20 years, agencies have closed the cases of more than 100,000 missing American foster children before they were found. Tens of thousands are listed as runaways. Others simply remain missing and the state has no idea where they are.
Disappearing without real searches
Having been a foster mom to 10 children in Arizona, I know from personal experience how vulnerable these kids are. One infant I fostered was born to an 11-year-old. Naively, I asked the social worker if the grandmother would help the new mother raise the baby. She didn't think so, the social worker told me: Grandma is the reason the child got pregnant. Grandma was pimping her out.
The social worker was nonplussed. This wasn’t her first rodeo.
The need for reform is urgent. Tens of thousands of American boys and girls in foster care are disappearing with little real effort to search for them. In some states, cases can be closed after only six months. In other cases, as we reported on in Arizona, a child may not even have a photograph of herself that can be shared with police; and privacy laws may prevent her full name from being shared publicly to help in the search.
It should come as no surprise that foster kids constitute most of America’s sexually trafficked children.
Predators know that children without stable families are easy prey. And sometimes relatives prey on their own. Without involved families to lead the search, without motivated authorities to search, and hindered by laws that prevent transparency about the details of a child’s identity, tens of thousands of missing foster children remain just that – trafficked and missing.
We do not have nationwide protocols for the prevention of disappearances, or for the search and recovery of missing foster children.
Had Anaiah disappeared from a traditional family setting, she might still be alive, like Alicia Kozakiewicz. Alicia was a typical teen living in a Pennsylvania suburb in 2002 when she slipped out to meet a “new friend” she had met online. The 38-year-old predator kidnapped and raped her while streaming the abuse online.
It is a horrific story. But it ends with Alicia’s rescue. Due to the family’s diligence, police immediately searched. A recent photo of Alicia was plastered on walls, bulletin boards and television. Alicia was ultimately recovered by the FBI. As with many recovered children, someone recognizing her photograph helped save her life.
Basic protections for foster children
Basic protections governing our own children must be brought to bear on children in state care for whom the state is responsible. This spring, a robust package of laws championed by my organization, Gen Justice, will begin to protect the missing and trafficked children of Arizona, where we are headquartered.
Working with our friends in law enforcement, we created a free photo ID integrated with search and rescue systems, so missing children can be searched for within minutes. Our missing kids will now also be reported to law enforcement within two hours, rather than weeks later or not at all. And we required the state to arm children in care with information about predators, the same as we parents teach our own children.
All states should make searches immediate, mandatory and ongoing. Predators think no one will look for these missing kids. Today, they are right. We must show them that we will put a stop to their violence and trafficking of children.
About Gen Justice
Gen Justice is an award-winning charitable organization fighting to mend the broken child protection system through nonpartisan policy changes and a pro bono Children’s Law Clinic.
To learn more about Gen Justice’s life-saving work, visit genjustice.org.
For press opportunities, please contact us Aimee Jolley at email@example.com.