The ‘Locator’: Tracking Foster Runaways In Washington

Feb 12, 2015

Washington is under court order to keep foster youth from running away. So the state now has a team of “locators”--social workers whose job it is to find runaways and bring them back.

Mike Stamp is one of these locators.

On a gray, rainy afternoon in Spanaway, Washington, Stamp walked into the local library with a stack of missing-person flyers. Stamp, a state social worker, sought out the nearest librarians.

"Is this anybody you guys recognize?" he asked. "He’s on what we called runaway status.”

Stamp has gotten a tip that the 15-year-old boy liked to hang out here because of the library's free Wi-Fi. One of the librarians immediately recognized the boy’s face, but couldn't remember when she last saw him. Stamp left a couple of flyers and asked the librarians to call 911 if they saw him again.

"We’re just worried about his safety," Stamp said. "Like any other kid that’s run away, we don’t know what they’re doing while they’re out on the streets, so anything you can do would be much appreciated.”

Stamp did a lap through the library to make sure the teen wasn’t there with him. Back in the car, he said this particular youth has serious behavioral issues

“He was going to school, it seemed like he was doing all right," Stamp said. But then in late January the teen ran from foster care.

Since the state is responsible for him, it’s Stamp’s job to find him.

Stamp has a caseload of about 17 youth – all runaways. He covers a sprawling seven county region of western Washington that stretches from Olympia to Port Angeles.

Stamp is part of a six-member team created in 2012 specifically to locate foster kids who run. Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services is under a court mandate to keep foster kids from running—and to get them back faster when they do.

Stamp considers the formation of this team a turning point for his agency.

"We just realized that we needed to do more, we owe it to these kids to do more," he said. "We want more for our own kids and so we should be practicing better."

Stamp calls himself a big, mean-looking bald guy with a soft heart. Visitors to his office are greeted with a poster of his look-alike: professional wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin.

Stamp also has the British World War II slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On” framed outside his office. It’s advice he needs on this job. He has said the youth he encounters often feel they’ve been wronged at every turn since birth.

"To say they’re mad would probably be a big understatement and so you’ve got to figure out a way to try to work with the youth to show them that the choices that they’re making right now aren’t helping them," he said. 

But first he has to find these kids.

Stamp begins most days scanning social media accounts. On one recent day, he used Facebook to track a runaway girl on his caseload.

"We’ve barely been able to get money to eat and we struggle to find places to sleep every night," he read from her most recent Facebook post. "So she’s with her boyfriend right now, he’s homeless as well."

Stamp know this runaway well. She’s a repeat runner. He’d already found her three other times.

"A very unhappy girl," he said. "She’s 15 years old.”

Stamp is worried this girl could easily fall into drugs, or worse. She’s his top priority right now. "I’ve probably put more hours in on this girl than the other kids because I want to find her and I want to get her off the streets."

He’s got a track record of success.

Stamp once used Instagram to trace a runaway to Oregon. She was picked up by police within four hours. Another youth he tracked down in Illinois. But there’s one case in particular that sticks with him: she was a 17-year old pregnant runaway who was shooting up methamphetamine.

"I spent three days, and I mean 14 hour days, looking for this kid," he said.

Stamp eventually found her. He still remembers what she told him as her drove her to a hospital: "No one’s ever come looking for me before."

Once he locates a youth, Stamp’s next job is to figure out how to get them not to run again. He conducts a formal debriefing. And then helps develop something called a “Run Prevention Plan.”

As a part of that plan, he wants the youth to have some say in where they’re placed next. But sometimes that’s not enough. The 15-year old repeat runner was on the streets with her boyfriend?

Stamp sighed at the thought of her. "he last three times that she’s been picked she’s been placed where she wanted to go," he said.

Yet she has continued to run.

Despite these setbacks, the number of foster youth on the run in Washington is dropping. So is the number of days they’re gone.

But lawyers for foster kids say the state could be doing even more to meet the required targets.

DSHS has requested 18 additional social workers in the next budget to focus on youth who pose a high risk for running away.

For Mike Stamp, the job of trying to locate kids who’ve run is never over.

In Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood, he cruised the streets looking for a 14 year old who ran from a juvenile half-way house.

"This is his stomping grounds," Stamp said.

The last time this youth ran he committed a hold-up with a fake gun and spent time in state juvenile detention. Stamp fears the violence of the street will catch up with this teen before he does.

Stamp has had days where a kid he’s looking for literally steps out in front of him. This time, he had no such luck.

As he headed back to his office in Bremerton, Stamp said at least the runaways now know someone’s out looking for them. It hasn’t always been that way.