When foster kids run, someone has to go looking for them, writes columnist Jonathan Martin

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Somewhere out there was a 15-year-old foster kid whose 20-year-old boyfriend had gotten hooked on heroin. Her mom was in prison. Her dad was long absent. When she got placed in the foster home of her choosing, she ran away a day later.

Now, her state Department of Social and Health Services social worker has to go find her. Mike Stamp has a three-Red-Bulls-a-day kind of energy. On a recent morning, he quickly scoured Facebook looking for a digital trail to follow. “Hiding in plain sight,” the runaway girl wrote in a post.

Young and homeless

Editor's note: Editorial writer Jonathan Martin spent several weeks looking at youth homelessness from all angles, traveling in-state and out to talk with kids, parents, foster parents, social workers, state officials and lawmakers. A series of editorials have addressed Martin's findings and appeared alongside columns and guest commentaries addressing this issue.

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Support for this series

Reporting for this project was made possible with financial support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private, national philanthropic organization that aims to better futures for disadvantaged children in the U.S. The work was done and directed independently of the foundation.

Reddit chat

Jonathan Martin and Megan Gibbard of All Home King County talked about youth homelessness during a recent "Ask Me Anything" Live chat on Reddit.

“She’s just doing that to piss me off,” said Stamp, shaking his bald head. With that, he hopped in the car and went in pursuit.

Finding runaway foster kids is one of the more grim but meaningful jobs in state government. Grim because there are a lot of these kids, and the potential endings to a runaway story are often bad.

Foster kids, current and former, make up at least a quarter of the homeless youths in Washington. Perhaps half of the kids wrapped into the slimy underworld of sex trafficking have been in foster care, advocates working to end underage sex trafficking estimate.

DSHS hasn’t always done a good job of looking for or finding them. I wrote about runaway foster kids a decade ago, when more than 640 kids were on the run at any given moment.

The state’s foster-care system has been under court monitoring for the past decade, under what’s known as the Braam settlement. The oversight includes a demand to decrease runs by foster kids.

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As one of 10 runaway locaters, Mike Stamp is a big part of that effort, and the focus is paying off. The most recent data from DSHS found 377 had run in the previous two months, and the length of time they are on the run has been cut nearly in half, to 32 days. To get out from under the Braam settlement, DSHS is going to have to do better.

Jennifer Strus, DSHS’ child-welfare director, said some of the kids run because of “typical adolescent rebellion.” One of Stamp’s tasks is to debrief runners and understand why, as the saying goes, they voted with their feet.

But Strus said some also run because their foster home is not a good fit. Finding a good one is much tougher when DSHS has such a shortage of foster homes that kids are staying in hotels or even DSHS offices. “It’s certainly harder in the middle of a placement crisis like we have now,” she said.

A day with Stamp quickly reveals the complexity and urgency of the job. He’s worked for DSHS for 11 years and as a locator for three years out of the agency’s Bremerton office.

“I never tell them to trust me. Because there’s no reason in the world they should,” he said. “That’s why, if they ask me to do something, and I can, I will.” That might include placement in a specific foster home.

We chased the “hiding-in-plain-sight” girl and two other young teenage girls with drug problems. Stamp stopped at a home in East Bremerton looking for leads on a 14-year-old girl who recently got out of a detention center in Ocean Shores and ran.

He is greeted by the missing girl’s adult brother, who’d also been in foster care. “Leave us alone,” the man said, radiating anger, spoiling for a fight. “Nobody gives a s— about you. Leave.”

“You’re probably right,” Stamp said, calmly. “But I can’t. We’ve got a 14 year-old girl out there slamming heroin.”

As a system insider, Stamps sees the gaps in the child-welfare system clearly. Youth advocates criticize the state for having too few high-quality foster homes and for leaning too heavily on detention for homeless kids.

The criticism is valid. Washington leads the nation — by far — in jailing kids for noncriminal offenses, something that contradicts this state’s image of itself as a progressive utopia. What if a foster child runs from a foster home for a good reason and is rewarded by being sent to jail?

Stamp acknowledges detention for runaway foster kids is not the best option, but it can be a lifesaver. And it is better than having a kid, fresh off a run, sit in an office until he or she can find a foster home. “If a kid sits in an office waiting for a placement, he’ll be gone within a few hours. If I have a few hours of detention, it gives time to find a better option,” said Stamp.

Our day together ended without finding a kid. A few weeks later, Stamp emailed with updates: All three girls were found.

But there will be more.