Remember Rilya Wilson? She was a 4-year-old ward of the state of Florida allegedly murdered by her foster care provider five years ago. The state Department of Children and Families had been unaware for more than a year that she was even missing. The case became a national scandal, but some good has come out of it. States all over the country, realizing the same thing could easily happen within their own social service networks, have taken steps to make such tragic lapses less likely.
Kentucky performed a census of the kids in its care, finding many who had gone missing. Michigan began using the Internet as a means of getting the word out to the public and police about missing kids. Many states have changed procedures so that they now look for all the kids they can't find, not just runaways. And a number of state child welfare agencies have stepped up communications with law enforcement departments that have the resources to actually find the children.
Many of these efforts are just common sense, but they had never been a priority. "What happened in Florida really helped the other states recognize that these problems occur," says Ben Ermini, of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, "They're trying to create guidelines to avoid that kind of situation."
Perhaps no state has done more than Illinois, which two years ago set up a special unit in its Department of Children and Families dedicated to tracking and finding kids who have gone missing. Much of the problem stems from the fractured lives that foster children tend to lead. States often can't track kids who cross their borders--or, in some cases, even those who move to the next county. The Illinois unit ties together those loose strings, acting as a clearinghouse to obtain information from teachers, guardians, social workers, children's friends and police. As a result, the time Illinois foster kids spend on the run has been cut from an average of 200 days down to 43.
States still confront a serious problem. Fatalities among foster children continue to occur with sickening regularity. Coordinating databases--and getting different levels of government to communicate electronically--still appears to be beyond the capacity of many child welfare agencies.
But the greater attention paid to the issue as a result of Rilya Wilson and other high-profile tragedies is at least helping states answer the simple question of where their kids are. "We can't lose these kids," says Judith Dunning, who heads up the Illinois DCF unit. "We are their parents, sadly enough."