How could 78 Oklahoma children in state Department of Human Services custody be missing — many of them for months — and the general public not know anything about it?
The answer lies in confidentiality laws and policies covering juveniles and children in DHS custody, according to DHS and police officials.
The Oklahoman requested the names and photos of missing children in state custody so it could enlist the public's help in finding them.
DHS spokeswoman Sheree Powell said confidentiality laws prohibit officials from providing that information.
Likewise, Oklahoma City police Capt. Dexter Nelson said police officials generally are prohibited from releasing missing persons reports and other information regarding children who run away from DHS custody.
There are limited exceptions.
Powell and Nelson both said that if a missing child is believed to be in imminent danger, whether it be from a kidnapping, medical condition or some other factor, police and DHS officials will work together to put out an Amber Alert in which the name and photo of the child will be widely distributed through the news media.
Such alerts are rare, however.
In most cases, it's up to child welfare workers and law enforcement officers to try to locate the children.
The child welfare worker assigned to the child is required to make monthly efforts to locate the youth.
At the same time DHS workers are searching, law enforcement officers are, also, Nelson said.
Nelson said the Oklahoma City Police Department has a three-person missing persons unit and at any given time, there are typically about nine children missing from DHS custody among the persons they are trying to locate. That's about three of those children for each officer.
The police officers will devote the greatest amount of their time to finding missing persons they believe to be in the greatest danger, and DHS runaways are not always at the top of that list, he indicated.
Runaways will usually try to hide from police officers, which adds to the difficulty in finding them, he said.
The children currently missing from DHS custody have been missing for an average of 130 days.
The long time many of these children have been missing raises one very important question: Are confidentiality laws protecting these children or are they placing them in greater danger?