In her youth, Micaela Baca ran away from foster care again and again.
Now, the 23-year-old advocates for better treatment for vulnerable youth, and she shares her story with foster kids to tell them just how dangerous it was for her.
“I feel like foster youth are more in danger because we feel like no one is going to believe us or protect us from anything,” she said. “We get ourselves into some pretty sticky situations, but it’s because we feel like we have no way out.”
The number of children running away from foster care is increasing, according to data from New Mexico’s Children, Youth and Families Department. In fiscal year 2015, 32 children ran away from placement. A total of 2,379 children were in state custody. The number of runaways grew to 48 in fiscal year 2019, when 2,362 children were in the state’s care. New Mexico’s runaway rate of 2 percent is double the national average.
Yet that percentage is lower than other states. A 2011 study from the Urban Institute and the University of Chicago found that nearly half of children in substitute care in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin ran away at least once. More than two-thirds of those youth ran away again.
“Unlike other runaways, youth who run away from foster care are generally not trying to escape from abuse or neglect, although they may experience conflict with caregivers,” the report said. “Having been separated from their families and friends, youth who run away from foster care are sometimes seen as running to something rather than running away.”
Brian Blalock, secretary of New Mexico’s Children, Youth and Families Department, sees this as a consequence of a child welfare system built for infants and younger children. He said while younger kids need more direct care, teens are vulnerable in different ways.
“When a 16-year-old disappears and it doesn’t get enough attention, that child could be trafficked or assaulted, all of which is horrible,” Blalock said.
He said there’s no formal way to allow kids to give input on where they’re placed, so they run away.
“Older kids vote with their feet,” he said. “We know where they go when they run away. They tend to go to parents, relatives. Even if it wasn’t the best situation, it’s back to what they know.”
He said an emphasis on keeping kids with kin in the places they grew up would help fix the problem. He also said there has to be an overhaul of the system, and youth need to direct how to fix the system.
“If a youth leaves a placement because it isn’t working for them, then our job is to continue to engage on a personal level,” he said.
Baca was in state custody twice. The first time was when she was 6 years old. She was adopted at 11. But after Baca was struck by a car and her adoptive mom “refused to come to the hospital,” Baca was taken out of her care.
She described a tumultuous time, recalling 29 placements in one year. She ran away from all of them. She would return to CYFD custody only when her situation grew dire.
“I’d turn myself back in for food or clothes,” she said.
Most of her placements were in group homes, she said.
Baca said her worst experience was when she ran away from a now-shuttered group home in Clovis. By then, she had garnered a reputation for always being on “runaway status,” and a 13-year-old girl asked if Baca would help get her to Albuquerque.
“I agreed to leave with her and while we ran away together, she ended up getting sold. ... She was sex trafficked for a year-and-half,” Baca said.
She said they were staying at a house that offered them shelter for the night, but the people in the house pistol whipped Baca and took the other girl.
Baca said she was stuck in that house and sold for sex for just over a month.
She said she reconnected with the girl a few years later and they’ve kept in touch occasionally. She said the other runaway is now 20 years old and addicted to opioids. Baca blames the system she said didn’t do enough to find them.
“I know that I’m not the only one that had that experience,” she said. “There’s even worse stories. I’ve heard them.”
The big picture
National experts said while policy is improving, there aren’t enough resources for runaway kids.
Robert Lowery, vice president of the Missing Children Division at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said runaways are 90 percent of his caseload.
A former St. Louis homicide investigator, he spends his time searching for some of the more than 420,000 kids reported missing each year.
“There never seems to be enough services, enough other nonprofits, enough diversion programs to work with these kids and their families,” Lowery said. “That’s the other frustrating part of this job is asking, ‘What more can we do? What other services can we offer?’ and knowing you’re dealing with public funding that is minimal.”
The nonprofit NMCAN does direct service and policy work for teenagers who are aging out of foster care or impacted by the juvenile justice system.
Ezra Spitzer, NMCAN’s executive director, said public perception has to change.
“Everyone thinks foster kids are bad kids,” Spitzer said. “They’re not bad kids. They don’t have the supports that many of us enjoyed. They need space to fail and do stupid things too.”
He continued: “Look, we also need more foster families to look like the youth they’re serving. We need more kinship placements. But if you’re engaging with youth, they’ll tell you that already.”
Baca said even though the situation with her adoptive mom wasn’t the best option, she kept running toward Albuquerque because that’s where the only family and friends she had were.
“I wouldn’t have gone through what I went through in Clovis if I was still in her care,” Baca said.
“Foster youth need more support,” she said. “I’m not talking about treatment. I’m not talking about prescriptions. ... You need support and affection. And you need to be told you matter and you’re a person and you’re valuable.”
In addition to advocacy work, Baca is a hostess and a mother of two.
While she said things are positive, she still hasn’t fully dealt with the impacts she had going through the system.
“Everything could be perfect, and I can still feel like I want to run away,” she said.