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A foster teen has gone missing. Why, his family asks, is no one looking for him?

Vincent Chavez Sr. and Kimberly Chavez stand on either side of their son’s prized car, left behind in the yard of the family home. Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico
New Mexico’s child welfare agency is supposed to safeguard children in its custody and report them immediately if they vanish. In this case, it didn’t.

On Sept. 25, 16-year-old Vincent Chavez – Junior, as his family calls him – ran away from his aunt’s house, where the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department had placed him and five of his siblings in foster care the month before. Vincent has Tourette’s syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder, and he had become agitated and angry before running, according to an Albuquerque Police Department report.

His aunt called the police and officers arrived quickly. They briefly spotted someone matching Vincent’s description running into an apartment complex off Central Avenue and Wyoming Boulevard; they found his red hoodie at the scene, but the teen was able to give them the slip, their report said. Officers entered his information into the National Crime Information Center database, available to law enforcement only. Then they left.

Eight weeks have passed, and nobody has seen Vincent. CYFD has still not posted his photo and information on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children website – a step the agency is required to take within 24 hours of a child’s disappearance, as mandated by federal law.

“It’s making us sick,” Vincent’s mother, Kimberly Chavez, said during an interview at her home in Albuquerque’s South Valley. “We can’t sleep at night. He’s out there without his medications.” Caseworkers have not answered family members’ repeated pleas for information, according to phone records shared with Searchlight New Mexico.

“We drive around every day looking for him, because nobody else is doing anything to find him,” Chavez said. “Why isn’t anyone else looking for him?”

Vincent Chavez in a recent photo. Courtesy of Kimberly Chavez

CYFD removed Vincent and his siblings from their parents’ home in mid-August, after investigators alleged abuse by Vincent’s father. The family maintains that those allegations are untrue; the matter is currently pending in children’s court. Vincent had never run from home before he was taken into foster care, his parents said.

More than 50 missing kids

New Mexico’s child welfare system has struggled to deal with runaways for years, according to interviews with attorneys and CYFD employees. As of Oct. 31 of this year alone, 52 kids were listed as runaways, according to CYFD.

Some teens, like Vincent, flee from foster homes, angry at being removed from their parents or unhappy with their living situation. Others routinely run away because of CYFD’s practice of housing teenagers in youth homeless shelters or department office buildings.

Trying to find a kid can be an uphill battle. The law does not allow CYFD employees or foster parents to physically stop a child from running away. Law enforcement is required to enter missing children into the NCIC database, but officers don’t usually proactively look for missing teens unless they believe them to be in imminent danger, according to attorneys.

“It really does feel like the kids just fall into a black hole” when they run from foster care, said Alison Endicott Quiñones, legal director of Advocacy Inc., an Albuquerque-based nonprofit that provides legal services for at-risk youth and children in CYFD custody. “There really isn’t a mechanism for requiring a kid to return, or ways to bring them back.”

If police do find a runaway, they usually drop them off at the CYFD office in Albuquerque, where the kids often run away yet again, she said.

A juvenile who runs from foster care “is treated as any other runaway or missing person,” said Albuquerque Police spokeswoman Franchesca Perdue. Officers review the case to see if the runaway qualifies as endangered, in which case “a flier is completed by the detective and the media is contacted along with DPS [the New Mexico Department of Public Safety],” she said.

Missing persons are considered endangered if they are believed to be at imminent risk of harm, if they have been victimized by a member of their household, or if their health and safety are in jeopardy, among other criteria. Law enforcement has not publicly issued a missing person’s advisory for Vincent.

There are numerous steps that CYFD is supposed to take when children in its custody – currently numbering 1,988 – run away. Crucially, foster care workers must alert law enforcement and contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children “immediately but no later than 24 hours” after they’re discovered missing. The name of the youth’s CYFD worker and other key details should be provided in their report, “including but not limited to the child or youth’s basic demographic information, a recent photo and particular risks the youth might face,” the policy states.

Sometimes caseworkers follow those steps and work aggressively to find a missing child, advocates say. Often they do not. Attorneys for foster youth have long complained that CYFD does not work quickly to find missing foster children. Those complaints were underscored in a 2023 audit by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which found that 51,115 out of 74,353 missing foster children were not reported in keeping with federal requirements. New Mexico was among the many states that failed to follow the rules. CYFD declined to comment about the high number of runaways.

Adding to the challenges, CYFD employees have been leaving the department in droves – the agency currently has a 27% vacancy rate – and the workers who remain often have crushing caseloads.

“That kiddo’s worker would have had at least 30 other cases they had to deal with at the same time,” said a CYFD employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the news media. The employee was not involved with Vincent’s case but was well familiar with the overall problem.

“We never want kids to go missing,” the employee said. “We never want this to happen. But if a kid does run away there’s only so much we can do. We’re not allowed to chase a child, we’re not allowed to restrain a child. He’s in our custody, absolutely, but our job is to report to police.”

The streets, needless to say, can be a dangerous place for kids, who can be hurt, trafficked or arrested, among other perils. The problem is devastating nationwide: As many as half of foster kids in America run away at least once and an estimated 40% go missing multiple times, research shows. The vast majority of those who run have mental health diagnoses, alcohol or drug use, or other factors that make them especially vulnerable.

As the days and weeks pass with no news of Vincent’s whereabouts, his parents keep patrolling the streets, stopping to look whenever they see a panhandler, they said.

He has loved cars since he was little and has wanted to become a mechanic so he could work at his dad’s auto repair business, his mother said. After he went missing, his parents felt sure he would at least come home to get his prized possession: a blue Chrysler 300 that his father, Vincent Chavez Sr., bought him a few months before his 16th birthday in September.

“That car is his baby,” his father said. “He has a spare key. It’s not a good sign that he hasn’t come back to get it.”

Searchlight New Mexico is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that seeks to empower New Mexicans to demand honest and effective public policy.