While it’s true that many children who wind up in foster care often come from troubled homes, there are plenty of other reasons why kids end up in those situations.

In March 2017, Emily, Aimee, and Christin Utter left their home with their parents to enter foster care with their great aunt, Debbie Miller, in Tonganoxie, Kansas. By August of that year, however, the children had gone missing.

When authorities looked into their history, they uncovered the horrifying truth about their foster environment…

Regardless of our preconceived notions, there are many reasons why children end up in foster care. These can range from abusive parents to their family’s monetary troubles. This is why good foster care can mean everything to a child coming from a troubled or unstable home.

While some foster children end up in permanent homes and are adopted, others who aren’t so lucky will age out of the system before that happens. In the end, however, it’s still an important institution for kids all over the United States.

In March 2017, Emily, Aimee, and Christin Utter left their parents’ home to enter foster care with their great aunt, Debbie Miller, in Tonganoxie, Kansas. Most believed life was looking up for the girls. But by August, things had gotten much, much worse…

All under the age of 16, the girls were excited to begin their new lives in a more comfortable environment. While leaving their parents surely came with its share of emotional pain, they hoped that things would work out with Debbie.

Then, just months after arriving at their new home, the three siblings had just… disappeared. Authorities arrived to question the family, and they learned that the girls had previously spoken of issues in their foster home, though there were no obvious signs of abuse.

Six weeks passed and there was still no sign of the three teens’ whereabouts. Then, on October 10, 2017, the Kansas City Star published an article seeking information that could potentially lead to their discovery…

The police believed the girls were still nearby, and they hoped the article would help. “We just want them to know that we love them, that we just want them to come home,” Debbie told the newspaper. “And it doesn’t matter what’s happened. We can work through whatever we need (to).”

Word of the missing girls began to spread around town, and residents began to question why the story hadn’t initially garnered more media attention. This inspired a group of lawmakers to conduct a deep dive into the state’s foster care system—and they were utterly horrified by what they found.

As the lawmakers soon uncovered, there were some unsettling statistics about the state of Kansas’s foster care system. Not only had the Utter sisters gone missing, but there were also over 70 other children in the state’s foster care system who were unaccounted for as well.

When a legislative task force investigated the eastern Kansas system using information provided by KVC Kansas, they discovered that 38 children were noted as missing. A similar dive into the western portion of the state run by Saint Francis Community Services found 36 more missing children.

The legislative task force was taken aback by these staggering statistics. They began to question how more than 70 children—who were supposed to be in loving foster homes—could simply be unaccounted for. “I am flabbergasted,” Laura Kelly, a local politician, said.

Laura made an even more shocking discovery: While talking to Phyllis Gilmore of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, she discovered that the woman had never even heard of the missing Utter sisters. “The fact that the person in charge of the wards of the state has no idea that these kids are missing from her custody is just astounding to me,” she exclaimed.

When Laura expressed her shock, Phyllis allegedly switched gears and claimed that she wasn’t allowed to discuss the case. She added that, even though the Utter sisters’ disappearance was a problem, there were a number of reasons for why they could’ve gone missing in the first place…

According to Phyllis, the most common explanation for a missing foster child was that they’d returned home to their biological parents. Meanwhile, other kids might simply look for someone who they’re comfortable with, like a friend. Some might even contact police to let them know they’re okay, but they won’t provide their location so as not to be found.

While the discovery of so many missing children might seem shocking, Chad Anderson, the chief clinical officer of KVC Kansas, explained that those statistics weren’t so uncommon in other states. He added that those children represented just one percent of children in the foster care system.

Chad did acknowledge that, while missing foster care kids was common, it was still a troublesome statistic—and there was an obvious need for improvement. “I don’t know that we as contractors have shared as much in terms of missing youth and the day to day as we probably should,” he stated.

Meanwhile, still worried about their three girls, Debbie and her husband decided to consult a private investigator to see if they could help in ways the authorities couldn’t. Just a few short days later, on October 14, 2017, they received their first break: a woman contacted the family claiming to have seen the girls in the Kansas City area.

The woman claimed the Utter sisters were seen with Rigoberto Reyes Rangel, a 48-year-old convicted felon who went by the name “Rico” and lived near Debbie’s home. Realizing the girls were likely in great danger, authorities were called to bring them to safety…

Three days later, on October 17, 2017, the authorities shared great news: the Utter sisters had been located and they were safe! Rico was also arrested. While their discovery was a relief, it did reveal major holes in the American foster care system that needed to be addressed immediately.

“It also just proved that there’s reason for alarm for missing children,” Jarrod Ousley, a local politician, said in an interview. “It certainly puts the kids in danger, and somebody ought to be looking out for them.” Thank goodness the Utter girls were found. Hopefully, changes will be made so no more foster kids will go missing!

Who knew there were so many flaws in the American foster care system? These issues need to be fixed soon so more kids don’t go unaccounted for.

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