Eighteen out of 67 missing Kansas foster children were found after a joint investigation last week coordinated the efforts of 100 law enforcement officers from federal, state and local agencies.
The week-long investigation, tagged with the name Operation HOPE, was led by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Health and Humans Services Office of Inspector General, Office of Investigations, said Todd Silver, communications specialist at the HHS OIG office.
The number of runaway youth in foster care changes daily. As of Nov. 20, there remain 56 verified runaway youth, said Kansas Department for Children and Families spokeswoman Taylor Forrest.
“DCF will continue to partner with local law enforcement, providers and other community partners to locate missing and runaway youth,” she said. “One child away from placement is one too many, and these at-risk youth will continue to be a top priority.”
Forrest said DCF plans to strengthen investigative searches and the department’s relationships with law enforcement to help locate missing kids.
Since Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel took over leading DCF, the department has had a “robust investigative team” actively looking for youth every day, she said.
Once runaway youth are found, Forrest said they are being partnered with Youth Advocacy Program advocates who can build a trust-based relationship with them.
“The advocate will help identify why the youth is running, and we hope help prevent them from running in the future,” she said.
DCF also has hired an anti-human trafficking manager to coordinate human trafficking efforts, and this individual will assist the missing and runaway youth investigative unit.
Last week’s investigation also served as an opportunity for HHS’s OIG to identify waste, fraud and abuse by individuals and entities, as it may be occurring within the state of Kansas’ foster care program, Silver said.
“One of our office’s highest priorities is to ensure the safety and security of our most vulnerable youth population,” said Steve Hanson, special agent in charge, HHS/OIG/OI, Kansas City Region. “As the lead agency with oversight responsibilities of the $5.7 billion dollar foster care program, we have a responsibility to ensure these children are receiving quality care and services.”
The investigation operated from command posts in Sedgwick and Johnson counties, focusing geographically on those counties and also Wyandotte County, Silver said.
“The effort ultimately spanned many Kansas counties and saw leads generated and forwarded to other states,” Silver said.
Right now, Silver said, no specifics about any findings regarding waste or fraud are available.