AUSTIN (KXAN) — A grim reality is adding to the ongoing shortage of foster homes in Texas. State lawmakers are now hearing a third of the children who ran away from foster care this year have not been found — some as young as 11.
In Texas, 973 foster kids ran away this past year, sometimes simply because they didn’t like the house rules, others wanted to return to their parents. A third of those kids — 340 vulnerable young people — have simply disappeared.
“We’re still looking for them. So that  was a number that was a point in time,” Angela Goodwin, director of Investigations for CPS told KXAN. “We always need the support from law enforcement to help look for missing runaways.”
But Goodwin says some police departments won’t add a runaway 17 year old to missing kids’ databases since the law considers them an adult. Those who are found spend an average six weeks on their own. Goodwin told lawmakers Monday at a joint hearing of the Juvenile Justice and Family Issues and Human Services House Committees. That makes the kids prime targets for child sex traffickers and lifelong trauma, advocates say.
Last legislative session, a law emerged that mandates CPS to interview rescued foster runaways to find out if they’ve been abused while on the run. This past year, 32 rescued foster runaways admitted they were sexually trafficked. It’s believed the true numbers are higher since some recovered children will not want to share all of what happened to them during their flight.
32 rescued foster runaways admitted they were sexually trafficked
And while CPS now assigns a special investigator to each foster runaway to scour social media channels for instance, child safety groups warn sex traffickers can be luring a wayward teen within hours – not days. Some pimps will hang out at a neighborhood convenience store, a place they know teens will gravitate, lawmakers heard.
East Texas Rep. James White, R – Woodville, urged CPS leaders to do more before the new legislative session.
“My local constable [or sheriff’s deputy or game warden] could act proactively and go to [that road] where the [known] human traffickers are and shut them down today.”
Long road to recovery
And for those who are rescued, it’s not as simple as returning them to any foster family. Child advocates say these traumatized kids need intensive help. Right now in Texas that kind of safe, therapeutic foster home does not exist – fewer still are emergency beds for rescued foster kids. The Refuge near Austin is a soon-to-open option for sex trafficking survivors along with faith-based non-profits.
“This is happening to the most vulnerable children in our community,” says Dixie Hairston, Children At Risk, a Dallas-based non-profit. “If law enforcement goes out, they do a sting operation and they do recover a child, where are they going to take them after they recover them there are just not those places out there.”
Child safety groups such as Children at Risk are asking lawmakers to further fund CPS to it can hire specialized caseworkers who deal with only foster kids who have been sex trafficked.
CPS also says it has trained thousands of its caseworkers as well as DPS troopers to recognize if someone is being trafficked. The Texas Attorney General’s Office has also created educational materials for law enforcement and teachers around the state.