Missouri's foster care agency is in the news after a federal review found important deficiencies in its documentation. Although the charges are incendiary, I'm not certain that the solutions will change anything.

First, most of the "missing" children actually are runaways. People in the youth-serving field know that running away is a coping mechanism, and a particularly strong one at that. As the federal report noted, "[O]ne study . . . found that a history of going missing from foster care is consistently associated with increased risk of going missing again—children who had gone missing at least once were 92 percent more likely to going missing again than children who had never gone missing. Another cited study found that with every additional foster care placement, children experienced a nearly 70-percent increase in risk of going missing."  

The federal review assumes that adults can develop strategies to control these coping mechanisms. Even the language that the review chooses, "going missing," treats runaways as though they accidentally find themselves out of their placements. This assumption is fundamentally wrong. Minors may not be capable of making decisions for their lives in the eyes of the law, but they do have agency. Adults can perhaps reduce the risk that children will run away (the report cites case workers who moved children to more secure settings or placed tracking devices on their phone), but we cannot control their decisions. Any solutions that pretend otherwise are doomed to failure.

Second, the solutions that the federal review recommends may or may not work. For example, the review recommended that the agency identify children at heightened risk of going missing and develop strategies to mitigate the risk. However, the review does not specify any strategies, and I don't know of any strategies that evidence has shown to work. Similarly, the review recommends better documentation and better compliance with federal regulations. Certainly better paperwork would create nice packages with nicely tied bows, but there is no evidence that better packages creates better outcomes.

It's very easy when confronting damages to vulnerable children to demand that someone do something. Without strong evidence of what works, however, we are at best wasting energy and at worst compounding the problem. Doing "something" may be emotionally satisfying, but it doesn't necessary make children's lives better.