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Boys in state custody run away from shelter

Two young boys in state custody managed to slip out of a children's shelter Wednesday night, and staffers did not realize they were missing until Thursday morning.

The two brothers were found unharmed Thursday, but their family is outraged.

"When they come and take away your kids, they're saying, "We can take care of them better than you,' " said the boys' grandmother, Patricia Smith, 45, of St. Petersburg. "Now they've taken the children again. How do I know they'll keep them safe?"

Police and relatives say the brothers, ages 11 and 3, slipped out a window after pretending to be asleep in their room at Sallie House, a Salvation Army-run shelter for children in St. Petersburg.

The shelter says the runaways went unnoticed because of a mistake by an experienced staffer who was distracted by other problems at the 18-bed facility.

"It was an oversight, and we regret that it happened," said Karen Braun, director of the St. Petersburg Salvation Army's family preservation and children's services. "We have already put into place a new and tighter system to prevent this from ever happening again."

Sallie House shelters children, ages 1 to 12, who have been removed from their homes but not yet placed in foster homes. Many are taken from homes marked by abuse, abandonment or neglect.

Children come and go from the shelter every day.

After a shift change Wednesday night, an incoming staffer failed to check the list of children who were supposed to be in the shelter.

"She got distracted. She was under the impression that the boys had been discharged," Braun said. "It's a busy, busy place, even at night."

From the shelter, the two boys walked nearly 20 blocks to their great-grandmother's house in the 4700 block of Second Avenue S, where they appeared about 9 p.m., said their great-aunt, Florina Flowers. Relatives at that house didn't contact other family members.

On Thursday morning, the boys' grandmother, Patricia Smith, got a call from police saying her grandchildren had been missing all night. She called around and found them at her mother's house.

The boys, whose identities are being withheld because of their ages, were taken back into state custody. Officials will try to place them in foster care with two of their siblings. Their mother, Cynthia Smith, 26, has six sons in state custody, the family said.

Officials are prohibited by law from saying why they took the children from their mother.

"They took them over some "he said, she said' situation," Patricia Smith said.

The Salvation Army operates Sallie House under a contract with the nonprofit group Family Continuity, which contracts with the state Department of Children and Families to handle child protection and foster care programs in Pinellas and Pasco counties. The exact location of Sallie House is kept confidential for security and safety.

"We have a lot of confidence in Sallie House. They have an excellent reputation, and they've done a good job for quite a few years in providing shelter for children," said Family Continuity spokeswoman Elaine Fulton Jones. "This was an unfortunate mistake. They feel very badly about it, and I don't think it'll happen again."