Runaway numbers inflated - by definition

Del. Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia, and members of the WV Foster, Adoptive & Kinship Parents Network hold a rally outside Senate Chambers Thursday in Charleston. The group met with legislators to discuss challenges and possible solutions faced by West Virginia’s struggling foster care system which currently has more than 7,000 children in its care. (Jenny Harnish/The Register-Herald)

CHARLESTON – Last week, representatives of the West Virginia Child Care Association made several recommendations to address the issue of children in state custody leaving adult supervision.

Most of the recommendations, however, did not focus on keeping kids from running away.

One recommendation focused on what counts as a runaway.

During a legislative interim meeting in September, West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Deputy Secretary Jeremiah Samples told lawmakers that there were 791 total runaway incidents from DHHR custody in 2018 — 586 incidents in which children were away from supervision for at least 15 minutes, and 205 incidents when they were gone for more than 24 hours. 

In an interview following a meeting of the Joint Committee on Children and Families last week, Katrina Harman, director of the West Virginia Child Care Association, said that "the numbers that have been reported in the past may seem unusually large because they are inclusive of the 'away from supervision' incidents and so they may not be actual missing endangered kids out on the street." 

Asked about reducing the number of incidents, she said "clearing up those definitions" could be a "step one."

The West Virginia Child Care Association represents 15 agencies that serve children in West Virginia, such as the Davis Stuart residential facility in Lewisburg, the New River Ranch mental health facility in Fayetteville and the Stepping Stone residential facility in Fairmont. 

Mike Smith, the executive director of one of the member agencies, Family Connections in Brooke County, said that some of the kids counted in the 791 number may have stepped out to smoke or gone to the end of the parking lot to cool down after an incident. 

"Those aren't to me runaways," he said. "That's (away from supervision) but they're all being included into the one bucket, and they all have to be reported to the police within so many minutes and counted as a runaway and then be put into the national system as a runaway."

He compared those incidents to a girl who left school in an attempt to find her mother and was gone for about an hour before found by police.

"To me, that's a runaway," he said.

To reduce the number of incidents, the organization recommended that agencies that work with children in custody of the state adopt a statewide curriculum on "away from supervision" incidents and provide funding for the training to be web-accessible.

Officials also want to update that curriculum so that's it's more inclusive of what researchers have learned in recent years about how best to care for kids who've been through traumatic events.

Samantha Riska, a counselor at Family Connections, described it as "a curriculum that will help agencies understand what to do when a child runs away."

According to Riska, some of the reasons children in state custody leave include: feeling isolated or powerless, feeling frightened by their new environment, trying to assert control, feeling angry with a staff person or another youth, substance use issues, or trying to find their family.

Deputy Secretary Samples stressed that DHHR remains concerned about children unsupervised for even 15 minutes.

"We have a responsibility to protect these kids and we have to do it," he said. "I just want these kids to be safe and when they are away from supervision or they have run away, we need to make sure we have an effective strategy to find them." 

DHHR officials, pointing to the addiction crisis as the reason for the increase, have said the state has the highest per capita rate of children in state custody in the country. According to DHHR, as of December 2019, 7,034 children were in state custody.

"We're dealing with kids," Samples said. "Human beings."

The West Virginia Child Care Association also recommended modifying a court ruling so that providers don't have to notify police when a child is away from supervision within 15 minutes. They're asking for an hour, instead, to allow for staff discretion and said that some children are "chronic runaways."

They said that some agencies had mentioned timed locks on facilities as a strategy, but they are asking lawmakers not to require that, because they want to "promote normalcy."

They also said they want to establish a unit, possibly within State Police, that would track all runaway leads and closed cases, including removing them from the National Crime Information Center missing person database, when the child is found. 

Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Children and Families, said last week it is likely lawmakers will consider enacting the recommendations.

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