Vanished in the System: The Crisis of Children Missing from Foster Care

3 min readMay 19, 2023

In March 2023, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General issued a scathing report on the underreporting of children missing from foster care. It showed that state agencies had neglected to report the overwhelming majority of children who had gone missing from foster care to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), the information clearinghouse that tracks missing child reports in the United States.

U.S. federal law requires state agencies to report missing children to NCMEC within 24 hours of receiving the information that a child was missing. An audit was conducted of missing child cases from July 1, 2018, to December 31, 2020. Of the 74,353 missing child cases audited, a stratified random sample of 100 cases was examined. Only 33 missing child cases were properly reported. Additionally, 22 cases were not reported within the required 24-hour period, and 45 cases were never reported at all. Based on those results, it is estimated 51,115 of the 74,353 missing children were never reported.

The importance of this report lies in the fact that children in foster care are highly vulnerable to all types of exploitation. While all missing children are vulnerable to harm and exploitation, research suggests children who run away from foster care are more likely to face serious risks of criminal victimization, sexual exploitation, and substance or alcohol abuse. The child may be a repeat runaway, but each time they run away, they are at an increased risk of exploitation. Research shows 60% of runaways who are victims of child sex trafficking in the U.S. had been in the custody of social services or in foster care.

A system ostensibly in place to protect children is failing.

Earlier this year in the UK, 200 unaccompanied migrant children who were placed in hotels run by the UK Home Office to care for unaccompanied asylum seekers went missing. It is believed that many of these children were taken to an area considered to be “the most threatening streets in Britain.” An estimated 33 organized crime groups work in this part of town. This is yet another example of a system intended to protect children which is failing them. Only about half of these children have returned and many have been found all over the UK by police forces across the country. A child could be abducted from Britain’s east coast and taken to the west coast before they are reported missing to authorities.

With an estimated 2.9 million children living in residential care around the world, it is imperative that the global community join together to address this issue. This will require a collaborative approach with caregivers, social workers, law enforcement agencies, policymakers and children working together to improve the quality of care provided to children in the foster care system, enhance communication and coordination between agencies, involve children in decision-making processes, and create a culture of accountability within the system.

To learn more about protecting children missing from care, listen to ICMEC’s webinar with guest Alaura Ervin, Legislative Assistance to the U.S. Senator John Cornyn’s office:

You can view the U.S. bill S.1146 “Find and Protect Foster Youth Act” which was introduced to the U.S. Senate on March 30, 2023:




The International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children defends children from sexual exploitation, abuse, or the risk of going missing.