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House passes bill aimed at speeding up search for missing foster kids 

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State legislators are taking action after teen girls Sitlalli Avelar and Kamryn Meyers, who reportedly ran away from a group home, were found dead in a Mesa water basin in late January.

The state House of Representatives passed House Bill 2651, with a vote of 31-28 along party lines on March 1. The bill would require the Department of Child Safety to begin making notifications within 24 hours of a child’s disappearance, with the hope of locating missing children before they are found dead. The bill was transmitted to the Senate for consideration on March 2. 

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“All of the foster care community would’ve loved to help with that situation but no one was made aware that these girls were missing until they were found dead two weeks later,” said Mesa Republican Rep. Barbara Parker.

Currently, if DCS receives a report that indicates a child who is a ward of the court or in DCS care is at risk of serious harm and the child’s location is unknown, the department is required to notify the appropriate law enforcement agencies and provide information about the child and their guardian. But at present there is no specific time-frame within which the department must make that notification. 

The law enforcement agency is then supposed to immediately enter the information into the Arizona Crime Information Center and the National Crime Information Center missing person databases. 

There have been instances when children have not been listed in the database, including the case of a 16-year-old girl who ran from a group home in Sierra Vista in 2020.

She was not posted on the missing persons database or in the DCS system as a runaway when her guardian Stephen Follett contacted the agency several days after she was reported missing. 

“We expected DCS to take care of this situation with the utmost urgency” Follett said during a hearing of the bill on Feb. 13. 

The bill Instructs DCS to provide specific information about the child and, if known, the child’s abductor, to all local media outlets within 48 hours of receiving a report of a missing, abducted or runaway child. The department would also be required to update social media platforms with information about the child and their disappearance. 

The bill also includes requirements to notify the child’s parents, attorney and relatives, and for the department to get regular updates from police and to post updates about the case to social media. 

DCS’s official stance on the bill is neutral, said Melissa Compian, the agency’s legislative liaison. But the department had some concerns about requirements for distribution of information to social media and media outlets, since DCS wants to maintain the privacy of the child. 

“Objections to the child’s privacy should no longer apply in these situations,” Follett said “Protection of life should overrule any argument of privacy. It will not matter when they find a lifeless body.”

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Isabela Gamez/UA Don Bolles fellow
Isabela Gamez/UA Don Bolles fellow

Isabela Gamez was a writer for the Arizona Mirror while serving as the University of Arizona School of Journalism’s Don Bolles Fellow. She studied at the University of Arizona majoring in journalism with a Spanish minor. She previously interned at the Digital Futures Bilingual Broadcast Studio and Arizona Public Media. She is active in the reporting of social justice issues.

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