Dozens of Georgia foster children were dropped from state custody while they were missing from care, even after the state eliminated a policy allowing the practice, a Channel 2 Action News investigation uncovered.
The previous policy, which was eliminated in December 2016, allowed the division to ask a judge to remove the Division of Family and Children Services as the guardian of a child in temporary foster care when the minor had been missing for more than six months.
Channel 2 discovered more than 50 instances, since the policy change, in which foster children were “removed from custody” before their 18th birthday. DFCS has since pledged a review of those cases.
After Channel 2’s inquiry, DFCS sent a memorandum to its staff on May 22 clarifying its policy on children missing from foster care. The memorandum stated, in part, “DFCS shall not seek to be relieved of custody of a child in temporary or permanent custody of DFCS based on the child being missing. DFCS shall maintain an open case and continue efforts to locate the child and address the concerns that brought the child into foster care.”
The memorandum also explained that missing children are extremely vulnerable and are at risk of exploitation, and reinforced the division's “responsibility to conduct a comprehensive search to locate the child and ensure the child’s safety and well-being.”
Carr learned that nearly 400 Georgia foster children under the care of the state are missing each year. According to DFCS, most are teens who run away to visit friends or family and quickly return to care. Carr also discovered that more than 30 percent of foster children who run away do so more than one time. An average of 30 children a year turn 18 while they are missing from care. DFCS listed those missing foster teens as “emancipated” in records provided to Channel 2 in an open records request.
A runaway’s tragic ending
Michael Franks told Carr he thought his sister, 17-year-old Dennetta Franks, was visiting family when she ran away from foster care in September 2017.
“She called me. She was real frantic. She said she needed help. She said she needed to get out of there,” Franks said.
Franks had previously fostered a younger brother, but was serving in the U.S. Army when Dennetta went into DFCS custody. DFCS denied Franks guardianship of Dennetta because of his military deployment.
When Franks received Dennetta’s call, he learned she was living in a Columbus hotel while DFCS looked for long-term care.
When Dennetta ran away last September, she asked her brother to drive her to Atlanta.
“I knew she wanted to see my dad,” Franks told Carr. “That’s the only reason I took her there. I didn’t know that would be the biggest mistake I’d make.”
Days after arriving in the city, Dennetta was found shot to death in northwest Atlanta.
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Franks learned of his sister’s murder when a friend sent him a composite drawing made by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. He said he immediately knew the girl in the picture was Dennetta.
“I just felt like I failed her,” Franks said. “I know it wasn’t my fault, but I felt like I wasn’t there to protect her because I was always away.”
How DFCS handles missing children
DFCS Chief of Staff Jeff Lukich told Carr that, in the rare case in which a child dies while in the state’s care, it is a blow.
“That’s a light that goes out, and we should all be concerned,” Lukich said.
DFCS follows a lengthy protocol when a child is missing, including contacting law enforcement agencies, notifying the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and using social media to search for the child. Lukich told Carr that on any given day there are 80 children missing from care.
Lukich said finding quality foster parents is one of the division’s biggest challenges. He said DFCS uses hotels on a short-term basis as a last resort. According to her DFCS case file, Dennetta lived in a hotel for nearly three months.
“She was a child that had a history of running away,” Lukich said. “She’s a child that had a lot of specific needs as well.”
Federal law addresses missing foster children
A change in federal law in 2014 mandates all state agencies that serve as guardians for children in foster care must report missing children to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
“The fact is that when they’re discharged and their cases are closed at the social services level, that’s concerning because that means no one is now looking for them,” said Robert Lowery with the NCMEC.
When Cox Media Group partners with WFXT in Boston asked how well Georgia performs when reporting to the NCMEC, he politely said that Georgia, along with many other states, had room to improve.
“We have relationships established in the state of Georgia. Maybe our awareness isn’t, uh, where we’d like it to be about the services we offer and the mandate of the law,” Lowery said. “The social service network is large, and getting that information to those actually down in the field, doing the work, can be a challenge.”
According to federal records obtained by WFXT, child welfare agencies across the country have dropped more than 114,000 foster children labeled as “missing” or “runaways” from care since the year 2000.
“When they go missing, there’s not a tearful parent there on television begging for their return,” Lowery said. “We’re reassurance that someone out there cares.”
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