When a foster child runs away, answers are hard to find | Helen Ubiñas
She and French's 13-year-old daughter had become fast friends, planning a big Thanksgiving dinner. They girls were going to make pies.
Shantel French couldn't keep her eyes off of her cellphone while we talked about her foster daughter.
The 15-year-old had been missing for nine days when we met at her South Philly home, and the first-time foster mom was frantic.
After being in French's home for almost a year, the girl was abruptly told that she'd be moving to a home in the suburbs on the day before Thanksgiving to live with a woman she'd met only twice.
She didn't want to go. She had bonded with French's family, who were planning a big Thanksgiving dinner. She and French's 13-year-old daughter had become fast friends. The girls were going to make pies.
If she was forced, the girl told French, she'd run away.
French, 30, told that to the girl's caseworker from Bethanna, one of the community umbrella agencies contracted to manage children under the city's care. But the plan remained unchanged.
And the girl ran.
The one place French knew to find her was on social media, where the girl looked tired. She had a new tattoo. Even more distressing was what seemed to French to be a lack of urgency from the agencies charged with caring about kids like her foster daughter. She'd reported the girl's flight immediately to Bethanna and to police.
A caseworker texted, asking for a photo of the girl, a full week after she had been gone.
Shouldn't they have one? French thought. And if they didn't, shouldn't they have asked for one the day she went missing? Was anyone actually looking for the girl? she wondered. No one was telling her much.
Technically, one caseworker told her, the girl's case had already been transferred to the new home, so French didn't have rights to any information about her.
French's anxiety turned to panic when she read a news story about a 15-year-old runaway found electrocuted atop a SEPTA train. If something happened to her foster daughter, she'd never forgive herself.
She figured the Department of Human Services wouldn't be happy that she was talking to the media. They were not. But if she couldn't get answers, she wagered, maybe I could?
Other than the vaguest of details and concessions about needing to improve communication, what I got from the department can be summed up as: Trust us, we got this.
After children are reported missing, the department works aggressively with police, I was told. No, they couldn't say how many foster kids go missing each year, because they aren't mandated to keep these totals. Numbers like that may be available once they update their data systems in a year or so.
A procedural guide I got from Frank Cervone, executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates, which provides legal assistance to abused and neglected children, filled in some more blanks.
But what stuck out to me even in those two pages was that there wasn't much in the way of keeping biological or foster parents in the loop.
Bottom line, confidentiality dictated that they couldn't get into details — not into this case, or the one about the 15-year-old foster boy who ended up atop that train. That young man, incidentally, was reported missing several times this year, police confirmed. But curiously, police had no record of a missing-person report filed for the last time he ran.
DHS cited confidentiality for not talking to me about that.
Maybe someone did file a report, and it's misfiled somewhere. Maybe those charged with caring for children in the city's care did exactly what was required of them when the boy went missing and when French's foster daughter went missing and when Carmen Pagan's son — the mom I wrote about who took to the streets to keep her son alive — ran from his residential home and ended up on a street corner selling drugs.
But as I told them, keeping people in the dark doesn't engender trust, especially when those kept in the dark are often worried-sick parents.
About 10 minutes into our conversation, French's phone rang. Her foster daughter was coming home.
"I'm here," French said.
She cried when the call ended.
The girl told workers that she'd like to stay in French's home. She wrote the same thing in a letter to a Family Court judge. But about a week after she returned, she was moved into another home.
French doesn't know why.
Maybe there's a perfectly good reason, but if there is, no one is sharing it. There's a lot about the child welfare system that doesn't make sense to French. And yet, she remains committed.
"I was a teen mom," she said. "I had my mom, but it was still hard. I always knew I wanted to give back if I could. That hasn't changed."