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MISSING KID CRISIS DCFS FINDS ONLY A FEW RUNAWAYS, ABDUCTEES.

Byline: Troy Anderson Staff Writer

In the months since disclosure of hundreds of children missing from Los Angeles County's foster care program, authorities have located only a few of those who ran away or were abducted by family members.

In all, 740 foster children were listed as missing several months ago when the troubled Department of Children and Family Services issued its most complete accounting.

Of the 252 who had been abducted as of July 31, only two have been located, Deputy County Counsel Alyssa Skolnick said. The DCFS did not have data yet on how many of 488 children who had run away as of Aug. 31 have been located.

But a DCFS report for September showed 77 had run away and only 22 had returned, while the October report disclosed that 63 children had run away and 14 had been located.

``It's below national standards,'' said Jerry Nance, a case manager at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, pointing to national statistics that show 94 percent of missing children are found.

``It shows the need to increase their efforts. There is only so much you can do, but it needs to extend more than just making phone calls. Cases need to be reported to the police and police need to respond, but that's tough because in California it's not a crime to be a runaway. They need a more concentrated effort.''

Foster children who run away or are abducted are in a high-risk category.

Sources who work at MacLaren Children's Center recall a total of seven children who were either murdered, died of medical complications or killed in accidents since 1993 after running away from MacLaren.

Just last Thursday, a teenage girl who had run away from foster care was charged in the killing of North Hollywood actor Merlin Santana, a cast member on the ``The Steve Harvey Show.'' Two men also were arrested in connection with the slaying.

``It doesn't feel like a lot of progress has been made,'' said Janis Spire, executive director of the Alliance for Children's Rights. ``This has got to change.

``I don't know anything about this girl's history. What was her life like in foster care? What efforts were made to locate her? The tragedy is that someone has been murdered and the youth is being charged and hopefully we are not going to find out that more could have been done to prevent this.''

The inquiry into Los Angeles County's missing foster children came in response to nationwide efforts to determine how many foster children are missing after a Florida case involving a 5-year-old girl whose disappearance from her foster home went unreported for nearly two years.

The number of missing foster children in Los Angeles County alone - 740 - is more than the 500 missing in the entire state of Florida.

In 2001, 840,279 people in the United States were reported missing, 85 to 90 percent of them juveniles. About 2,000 children are reported missing every day, but no statistics are available on the number of missing foster children in the nation.

The report on the abducted and runaway foster children was released on Sept. 27 and it showed 252 children had been abducted, 68 percent of whom were under 6 years old, and 488 children had run away, 84 percent of whom were more than 15 years old.

After the report's release, county supervisors ordered a follow-up report in 90 days on what steps were being taken to locate the children, how many had been located and a proposal to upgrade the computer tracking system.

The supervisors also asked Juvenile Court Presiding Judge Michael Nash to approve the creation of an Internet site to list the names of the missing children, with their photos and a number to call for anyone with information about the child's whereabouts. Nash has not ruled on the proposal yet.

Currently, Find the Children, a nonprofit organization dedicated to locating abducted children, has the names and pictures of abducted children, including those from foster care, on its Web site at findthechildren.com.

County officials have been working to form a task force consisting of 18 different agencies and DCFS divisions to develop ideas on how to locate runaway children. The first meeting is expected in early December.

DCFS spokeswoman Patricia Matesic said progress is being made to locate the children.

``A warrant is issued with law enforcement, schools are notified and social workers try to talk to the child's friends and family members to see if they have any idea where the child has gone,'' Matesic said.

``If it's an abduction, the FBI is notified. There are always ongoing efforts to locate the child. A lot of these kids will run away on a Friday and come back on Monday.''

Antonovich said he wants DCFS to ensure that every child is located and put in a safe and secure home.

``My concern is that each child is in a suitable placement to ensure their needs are being met,'' Antonovich said. ``We don't want to endanger the life of any child or perpetuate any serious problems that they are encountering.''

Child welfare sources said the heart of the problem is that in many states once a child is reported missing, the child is taken off a social worker's caseload and the social worker is no longer responsible for that child.

In Los Angeles County, Skolnick, who is in charge of coordinating efforts to locate abducted foster children, said she guides social workers through the process of helping to locate the children.

``When they contact me, I review it with them and get them to put together the information needed to submit to the District Attorney's Office,'' Skolnick said. ``They review the case, assign an investigator who begins the process of searching for the child.''

From Aug. 1, 2001, to Aug. 31, 2002, the District Attorney's Office's Child Abduction Unit filed 22 cases against parents accused of kidnapping children from foster homes, a felony punishable by up to four years in prison or a $10,000 fine.

Of the abductions she handles, Skolnick said, a third involve international abductions, mostly parents who kidnap their children and take them to Mexico or South America.

``I think they are doing the best job they can,'' Skolnick said. ``If a parent wants their child and is not afraid of the consequences, a parent will do whatever they are able to do to get their child back.''

Once a child is reported abducted, Skolnick said, a student tracer is put on file with the school district so if the parent attempts to enroll the child at another school in the nation a computer tracking system will flag the enrollment.

Deanne Tilton, executive director of the Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect, said the county has made a giant leap by placing the pictures of all foster children in their case files.

``We worked for years to make sure there were current photos,'' she said. ``It hit a bureaucratic jam time after time. These children are at extremely high risk. Children have died as a result of being abducted.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Nov 24, 2002
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