Foster child Alisia Laboa turned 16 this month, but there was no traditional Sweet 16 party for her.
Laboa ran away from a state supervised group home in New Bedford in December, prompting State Police to issue a public appeal for help finding her. Laboa’s name and photo are posted on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s website under the headline, “Help bring me home.”
On any given day, hundreds of children in the Massachusetts welfare system may be missing, mostly teenagers listed as “on the run.” By Feb. 2, that list included 134 foster children as young as 13, according to a tally by the state Department of Children and Families viewed by the Globe. Social workers stopped checking on another 13 children recently because their parents were uncooperative, rebuffing caseworkers or moving without a forwarding address, DCF officials said.
The state does not track the number of missing children in another potentially large group: those whose families are already under state supervision because their parents face allegations of abuse and neglect.
Yet Olga Roche, head of DCF, told lawmakers at a hearing last month that she was certain there were no other children in her agency’s care who were in danger or were missing, as was Jeremiah Oliver, a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy who disappeared last year while under the state’s watch.
“Can you give me and the other 6 million people of the Commonwealth the assurance that you know that every single one of those 36,000 children in your care today are present, alive, and healthy?” asked state Representative David P. Linsky, chairman of the House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight. “Can you give me that assurance that there are no other Jeremiah Olivers out there today?”
“Yes,” Roche said firmly. Asked whether she was “100 percent confident,” Roche said yes again.
State officials later defended Roche’s assertion. “The line of questioning that the commissioner was responding to was whether there were any other ‘Jeremiah Olivers out there,’ ” said DCF spokesman Alec Loftus. “She was not responding to a question about teenagers on the run.”
Patrick administration officials say they are not sure exactly how many children under state supervision are currently missing because they do not keep data on every type of missing child, including runaways from DCF-supervised families where the state does not have custody of the child.
The administration also declined to release the names of children known to be missing because of “confidentiality policies.”
However, state officials confirmed that there is at least one other state-supervised child who went missing under circumstances just as disturbing as the disappearance of Jeremiah Oliver, who was gone for months before anyone reported him missing.
Marlon Devine Santos, a 5-month-old from Worcester, disappeared from his foster home in 1998 and has never been found. His foster father, who already had a criminal record, was later convicted of abusing other foster children. Police still list Marlon as missing.
Loftus said the state is working hard to upgrade the agency’s technology to better supervise children in the system in future, including providing computer tablets to social workers to improve real-time reporting.
“There are many things in our system we wish we had the ability to track more comprehensively,” Loftus said.
He went on to say that he thought it “inaccurate to characterize children who have run away as ‘missing,’ ” even though the agency doesn’t know where they are and typically files missing persons reports on suspected runaways.
“These are, oftentimes, teenagers who are facing difficult times in their lives and run away to stay with a friend for a period of time,” Loftus said.
Some of Roche’s DCF colleagues, however, said it is common knowledge that the agency cannot be absolutely sure that every child is safe at all times, because they cannot be with the children every moment of the day and many children are missing for various reasons.
Children’s advocates also said that, regardless of how they are classified by DCF, many missing children, including runaways, are potentially in danger.
A California human rights group, CAS Research and Education, found that many children exploited in commercial sex cases originally came from foster care. A 14-year-old girl, Dymond McGowan, was killed in a late-night shooting in Springfield in 2007 after running away from her foster home.
“My belief is that children who are on the run while in the care of DCF are ‘missing’ unless we know where they are,” said Charles Lerner, a former foster child who now runs a nonprofit that helps monitor abused or neglected children in the court system, the Boston chapter of Court Appointed Special Advocates.
“If it were our child,” Lerner said, “we would do everything within our power to find them. In my experience, the system’s response is way too often complacency.”
Fortunately, most children who run away or are abducted are found quickly.
Maria Mossaides, who oversees two group homes for older children in Dorchester and Malden, said teenagers sometimes miss curfew, prompting the agency to file a police report. But most return within hours, she said.
“We don’t view this as children lost in the system,” said Mossaides, executive director of Cambridge Family & Children’s Service, which is funded mainly through state contracts. “We see it as kids wanting to stay with their friends, rather than come home.”
Not all missing children are spending time with friends. Police said a Fitchburg mother fled with her 6-year-old to North Carolina in January after the state won custody of the child. They were found three days after police issued an Amber Alert. The mother, Leeanna Wilson, faces charges including kidnapping of a child by a relative, reckless endangerment, and multiple counts of assault.
Some runaways have been missing for months or longer, suggesting that they may have serious problems.
Relatives said Alisia Laboa, for instance, ran away from the New Bedford group home in December because she wanted to be with family, not in an institution.
Her aunt, Rayna Martinez, said Alisia has stayed “everywhere and anywhere” since running away, including staying in New York with her birth mother, who is trying to regain custody of the girl.
“Her mother is fighting for her,” said Martinez, who said she would have taken Alisia in herself, but thought she was barred from doing so because she has a criminal record.
Family members paint a picture of a teenager who has been unhappy in the foster and group homes of the child welfare system since she was taken away from her mother roughly eight years ago over allegations that her mother’s boyfriend was abusive. Both Alisia and some of her relatives fault DCF for making the situation worse.
“Do a story about DCF ruined my life,” Alisia wrote in a brief message to a reporter through Facebook. “I hate them.”
Alisia did not elaborate. But her older sister, Shea Laboa, said they were mistreated in a previous foster home together, while the state did little to make sure they were safe.
“I never once saw a social worker walk through my house to see how things were,” Shea said. “My foster mother refused to get help for her issues, and she was cruel.”
New Bedford police said Alisia appears to have been avoiding police who have been trying to find her.
“Alisia actively runs away on her own,” said New Bedford Detective Sergeant Matt Rayner, noting that Alisia has run away from the group home and other foster homes before.
State welfare officials declined to discuss Laboa or any other missing children citing confidentiality, but said they have a protocol of always contacting police, as well as the child’s parents and attorney, whenever “a child’s whereabouts are unknown.”
The agency said it also consults relatives, friends, and government databases to try to locate the child and, in some cases, even goes to court to compel parents to come forward with information.
“Any child who is not safely tucked in bed is a concern,” said Kathleen Betts, the state’s assistant secretary for children, youth, and families. “We take immediate action.”
Betts also defended Roche’s suggestion that every other child under DCF’s watch is alive and healthy.
“I think what the commissioner was talking about is that we have procedures in place that we count on to ensure that kids are safe and they are accounted for,” Betts said.
However, Betts acknowledged that she did not know how many children under the state’s care are actually missing.
Linsky, the Natick legislator who questioned Roche about missing children, said he was surprised to hear there were so many other missing children under DCF’s watch after Roche suggested there were none.
“What you are telling me is of grave concern,” Linsky told a Globe reporter in an interview. “I understand they are dealing with a difficult population, but they need to do a better job of knowing where the kids are.”
Sean P. Murphy of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Todd Wallack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.