The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) exists to help local law enforcement find missing and exploited children. But a recent report found that often, the office is not alerted when youth in foster care go missing.
Only one-third of the thousands of children who go missing from foster care each year are reported to a national agency as required by federal law, according to a new report from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General.
After auditing more than 74,000 cases, auditors estimated that 47%, or 34,869, of the missing children were never reported to NCMEC. An additional 22% — 16,246 — were reported late. Further, the audit revealed that a majority of cases that were reported on time had inaccuracies and other “data quality issues.”
Federal law requires child welfare agencies to report children missing from foster care placements, including 18- to 21-year-olds in extended foster care, to NCMEC and local law enforcement within 24 hours. The late reports discovered by the audit were made at least two days after the children first went missing. In some of the cases that were not reported, children were missing for months or even years.
“State agencies that do not properly report missing children episodes to NCMEC increase the risk that the children may not be safely and swiftly recovered,” the Inspector General wrote.
The estimates were calculated from a 100-case sample selected from 74,353 cases in which a foster child was missing for at least two days over an 18-month period.
When it receives a missing child report, NCMEC creates social media awareness about the child. The agency’s Child Sex Trafficking Recovery Services Team provides specialized support when a child goes missing from foster care.
The auditors said they were unable to find a systemic reason for the late and missing reports. One problem that was identified was that nearly all the states included in the audit sample lacked a system for tracking if and when missing children had been reported to NCMEC. In isolated cases, state agencies reported policies that were out of step with federal law, like not reporting cases for foster youth who were close to 18 years old, or protocols that caused delays, like routing reports through law enforcement.
The Administration for Children and Families said it was taking steps to improve compliance with the reporting requirement, including sending out guidance to all state child welfare agencies and hosting webinars about safety planning and resources for missing children and those at risk of trafficking.
The full report is available here.