Building Relationships to Reduce Child Runaways in Missouri

Building Relationships to Reduce Child Runaways in Missouri

This summer, Justin Springer sat outside a courtroom with Sarah*, a teenager in foster care, who was about to testify against her alleged abuser. Justin, a Cornerstones of Care Response Team Coordinator, accompanied Sarah to her court date to provide support. As you can imagine, waiting to testify in court is anxiety-inducing, and Sarah became emotional.

Sarah asked Justin to reach out to her foster care therapist and spoke to her briefly over the phone. Just before entering the courtroom, Sarah asked for a community meeting. Cornerstones of Care is certified by the Sanctuary Institute, including the self-care process of opening all meetings by asking participants how they are feeling, what their goal is for the gathering, and who can help them.

Just before going in to testify against her abuser, Sarah led a community meeting with Justin, her social worker, her sister, the prosecuting attorneys, and an FBI agent. Sarah helped everyone talk through their feelings and emotions before going in.

“It was really cool to see her using the tools she learned and feeling connected to those who impacted her time in our care,” Justin says. “A lot of times in this line of work, we don’t get to see the fruits of the hard work we do.”

Justin’s work as a Response Team Coordinator is part detective, part counselor, and fully committed to our youth. If someone runs from foster care or a residential facility, Justin works to find them and ensure their safety. He is so good at his job that he is working with Missouri Children’s Services to identify ways to reduce runaways.

In 2021, a Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General’s report cited a lack of oversight by Missouri’s Social Services Children’s Division. The report stated that 978 children were missing from Missouri foster care in 2019. Close inspection of 59 of those cases showed that caseworkers did not file proper reports with either local law enforcement or the National Center for Missing or Exploited Children.

To ensure all reporting processes are followed, Justin uses a 16-point checklist to gather the necessary information and notify the proper authorities. Justin notes that some police departments are reluctant to take reports, particularly if the youth is a frequent runaway.

In his ongoing work with police departments, Justin has cultivated relationships that smooth the reporting process. Caseworkers who don’t have those relationships are often stymied in filing reports. In one situation, Justin jumped in to help a case manager getting pushback from law enforcement for filing a report. Justin reached out to the appropriate authorities and persuaded them to file the reports, allowing the harried case manager to return to her cases.

Those who work in the foster care system know that runaway youth are common. Teenagers generally feel challenged by authority, want to be independent, and manage many complex emotions. Add to those challenges a teen who is working through trauma, and it’s easy to imagine why youth flee.

Trained in social work, Justin spent seven years working in the Division of Youth Services and another two as a case manager at Cornerstones of Care. In 2020, Justin moved to his current position on Missouri’s response team. His experience helped him learn how to develop rapport with youth in the system and keep communication channels open.

Prevention is among the best ways to reduce runaways, and Justin spends a portion of his time cautioning youth about the risks through an evidence-based curriculum provided by National Runaway Safeline, titled “Let’s Talk.” The modules describe the realities of running away, along with discussions about anger management, stress reduction, and safety on the Internet, among others. Justin teaches modules on family dynamics, self-esteem, life planning, and about a half dozen other personal development topics. More important than the program is the opportunity to interact with the youth and meet them where they are.

“I’m able to get my foot in the door and establish a relationship with them,” he says. “They are very open. We talk about stuff that matters to them, like video games.”

Justin begins his mornings by checking reports to see if a youth has run from foster care. Often, information comes in overnight because young people run away in the evening from foster families or residential facilities, or it has taken much of the previous day for information to circulate about a young person’s disappearance.

If a youth is reported missing, Justin will determine whether or how often the youth has previously fled and where they have gone in the past. The overarching goal is to make sure that the young person is safe, Justin says. Nearly everything else, including where a youth is placed, is negotiable. For Justin, this sometimes becomes a balancing act between satisfying state requirements to return youth to mandated care and ensuring that he can build trust with the runaway youth and not lose them altogether.

When a young person is missing, Justin checks the missing youth’s social media accounts to attempt a dialogue. On one occasion, he staked out a tattoo parlor for several hours, based on a tip that a youth planned to get a tattoo there. Justin reiterates that his primary goal is to contact the youth and ensure they are safe. When runaway youth are released from care, Justin is sometimes the last point of contact. Runaway youth have reached out months later, and he has helped them schedule needed medical appointments, work toward a GED, and in one instance, track down a stimulus check that was never received.

Months before Sarah testified in court, she and her sister had run away from foster care. Although listed as missing, Justin knew from social media posts that the sisters were living with their mother, violating a court order. After several frustrating months of trying different approaches, Justin reached out to state and federal contacts he had made, and the FBI included the sisters in Operation Cross Country, a nationwide effort by the FBI and local law enforcement. In total, the operation recovered 84 minor victims of sexual exploitation and 37 missing children, including Sarah and her sister. 

“Between me, the Kansas City Police Department, and the court system, we hit more roadblocks and barriers than I can count,” Justin says. “I am glad we finally recovered them during the FBI operation.”

*Name changed to protect privacy.