It’s summer in Kansas, and three teenage sisters disappear from their great aunt’s home. Six weeks later, no trace of them has been found. As questions begin to be asked about the system that placed them in their relative’s care, a shocking truth starts to emerge.
Although we tend to associate foster care with children from broken homes, there are many different reasons why young people end up in the system. In some cases, their birth families are not able to properly fulfill their emotional and physical needs. In others, external circumstances may render parents temporarily incapable of caring for their child.
In 2017 more than 7,000 children spent time in foster care in Kansas alone. Of these, some went on to return to their families, while others ended up permanently placed with adoptive parents. Additionally, there was a third group, composed of young people who eventually grew too old for care.
While in the system, the majority of these children were living in a family foster home. After that, the next most popular option was to place them in a relative’s care. In fact, in 2017 more than 2,300 young people had been removed from their homes and temporarily accommodated in this way.
Back in March 2017, Emily, Aimee and Christin Utter left their parents’ home to live with a foster carer, Debbie Miller, in Tonganoxie, a city in northeast Kansas. As the great aunt of the girls, who were all under 16 years old, Miller hoped to be able to provide them with a loving home.
Then, on August 26, 2017, Emily, Aimee and Christin disappeared from the home that Miller shares with her husband Terry. As the authorities investigated, they learned that the girls had been speaking about problems in their foster environment. However, police failed to uncover any evidence of abuse.
Six weeks later, and the three girls were still unaccounted for. On October 10, 2017, an article appeared in The Kansas City Star. In it, Miller appealed to the public, hoping that some information could lead to a reunion with the missing youngsters.
“We just want them to know that we love them, that we just want them to come home,” Miller explained. “And it doesn’t matter what’s happened. We can work through whatever we need (to).” Police thought the girls were somewhere in the Kansas City area.
After the article was published, many were left wondering why the disappearance of three vulnerable young girls had not been bigger news. Soon, lawmakers began to take a closer look at the foster care system. They were shocked by what they found.
Later, on October 10, 2017, the companies responsible for arranging foster care in Kansas released some staggering statistics. Apparently, the Utter sisters were not alone. In fact, there were more than 70 children in the foster care system whose whereabouts were currently unknown.
In eastern Kansas, foster care is provided by KVC Kansas. And during a meeting with a legislative task force, the firm confessed that 38 of their charges were considered missing. Meanwhile, in the western part of the state, Saint Francis Community Services admitted that they were unable to account for a further 36 children.
As these figures emerged, many expressed outrage. How could 70 children, meant to be in the care of the state, simply have disappeared? “I am flabbergasted,” local politician Laura Kelly told The Kansas City Star. What’s more, there was worse to come.
Kelly questioned Phyllis Gilmore from the Kansas Department for Children and Families. And Gilmore apparently appeared unaware of the Utter sisters’ situation. “The fact that the person in charge of the wards of the state has no idea that these kids are missing from her custody is just astounding to me,” Kelly continued.
Afterwards, Gilmore claimed to be unable to discuss the specific case. But while she acknowledged that missing teenage girls are always a cause for concern, she went on to explain that there are many reasons why children might choose to leave their foster home.
According to Gilmore, some foster children end up leaving care in order to reunite with their biological families. Meanwhile, others might seek out people with whom they already have a connection. Additionally, sometimes missing children will notify authorities that they are safe – although they won’t disclose their location.
Although the amount of missing children in Kansas seems shocking, KVC Kansas’ chief clinical officer Chad Anderson claims that the number is similar in other states. Furthermore, it represents just 1 percent of the total foster care population.
Nevertheless, Anderson admitted that the situation was less than ideal – and that there was room for services to improve. “I don’t know that we as contractors have shared as much in terms of missing youth and the day to day as we probably should,” he confessed to The Kansas City Star.
Eventually, the Millers hired a private investigator to help in the search for Emily, Aimee and Christin. Then, on October 14, 2017, there was a break in the case. That day, a woman contacted the Millers to tell them that she had spotted the girls in Kansas City.
According to the tip, Emily, Aimee and Christin were with 48-year-old Rigoberto Reyes Rangel, known as Rico. A convicted felon, he had lived near to the girls at a previous address. However, police did not consider them to be safe in Rangel’s company and called on the public to help track them down.
Finally, on October 17, 2017, police made an announcement – the three girls had been found safe and well. But even though this story had a happy ending, future situations may not pan out so well. “It also just proved that there’s reason for alarm for missing children,” politician Jarrod Ousley told The Kansas City Star. “It certainly puts the kids in danger, and somebody ought to be looking out for them.”