Under federal law, state social service agencies must submit a report to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, a nonprofit organization established by Congress in 1984, when a child under their care goes missing. They also are required to notify law enforcement, who report missing children to the National Crime Information Center.

But an audit published earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that across 46 states, state agencies failed to report an estimated 34,800 cases of missing foster kids. Cases include children who ran away multiple times. The average age, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, was 15.

“When it comes to teenagers specifically, most child welfare systems just don’t have the right service array, because systems are often built for babies and younger children,” said consultant and attorney Lisa Pilnik, director of Child & Family Policy Associates, a child welfare consulting and research firm.

“We don’t have enough family placements, and we don’t have family placements that are equipped to meet the needs of teenagers,” she said.

Teens often run away or go missing more than once during their time in foster care. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children report found that about 40% of foster children who were reported missing went missing multiple times — on average, four times — while in state care.

Black and Native American children are overrepresented in foster care and make up a disproportionate number of missing kids. Hamilton was among those Black children. Studies have shown that states are more likely to remove Black children from their homes, and that racial bias is a factor.

“The foster care system is wrought with a lot of difficulties,” said Gaétane Borders, president of Peas In Their Pods, a nonprofit that advocates for missing children of color. “When you add that to the complexities of missing children, reporting of missing children, and how that intersects with human trafficking and sexual exploitation — it is honestly a complete mess.”

Recent reports on some states are equally damning. In Georgia, nearly 1,800 children in state care went missing between 2018 and 2022, according to a new analysis conducted by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children as part of a U.S. Senate panel’s ongoing probe into Georgia’s child welfare system. More than 20% of those were likely trafficked, Samantha Sahl, supervisor of the center’s child sex trafficking recovery services team, said at a subcommittee hearing Monday.

Read the full article about children in the foster care system by Nada Hassanein at The 19th.