U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., vowed Thursday to help two federal agencies responsible for child welfare to develop the tools needed to protect foster children from abuse and neglect.
The Senate’s Human Rights Subcommittee, which Ossoff chairs, launched an investigation last February to assess the safety of children in foster care.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) found in October that between 2018 and 2022, 1,790 children in the care of Georgia’s foster care system were reported missing. During a hearing of the subcommittee last month in Atlanta, witnesses testified that children missing from foster care are particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking.
“What is happening to foster children across the United States is not acceptable,” Ossoff said Thursday during another hearing held by his subcommittee. “The number of children who are going missing from foster care is unacceptable.”
Ossoff and Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, the subcommittee’s ranking Republican, criticized lax oversight by federal and state child welfare agencies when it comes to missing children.
Ossoff cited audits of multiple states that found 45% of missing child incidents were not reported to NCMEC and that most missing children were not screened for sex trafficking after they were recovered.
Blackburn said the federal government can’t find 85,000 missing migrant children.
“We’ve seen reports of these children working in factories (and) food processing plants,” she said. “We should not have to read more reports of children being used for child labor or sex trafficking rings.”
Jose Perez, deputy assistant director at the FBI, said one of law enforcement’s biggest challenges is end-to-end encryption, a technology that allows participants in organized criminal rings to communicate with each other without anyone else gaining access.
Perez said the FBI’s 56 field offices operate more than 85 task forces across the country. Investigators prioritize cases involving missing children ages 12 and under who have gone missing under suspicious circumstances, he said.
“If we believe it’s a kidnapping, that’s an all-hands-on-deck scenario,” he said.
Rebecca Jones Gaston, commissioner of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration on Children, Youth and Families, said her agency requires state child welfare departments to submit plans outlining their policies. Those that don’t meet federal requirements are offered technical assistance so they can improve, she said.
Ossoff said making sure states have adequate policies for dealing with foster children isn’t enough.
“Putting something in a policy manual is not always implementing that policy in practice,” he said.
Jones Gaston said ensuring polices are put into practice is up to state and local child welfare agencies. However, her agency can and does issue corrective action plans and assess penalties if those policies aren’t followed.
Ossoff said the full Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing next month to hear from CEOs of tech companies on steps they’re taking to protect children from online predators.
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