Demi Boothe ran away from the state foster care system by leaping from the second-story window of a Topeka residence, scaling a fence and jumping into her friend's waiting car.
She was tired of sleeping in a different house every night. She went five days without a shower or a change of clean clothes. Other girls bullied her.
The 15-year-old, who has been missing from state custody since Oct. 5, described in an interview Tuesday her experience with KVC Kansas, a child placement provider for the Kansas foster care system.
"I just want to go home," Boothe said. "That's literally all I want."
Boothe called her father, Randy Puett, after reading about his efforts to locate her in a story published last week by The Topeka Capital-Journal. She was surprised to learn that KVC failed to notify Puett when she ran away.
Now that the two are reunited, Puett is shielding his daughter from authorities who have directed him to return Boothe to state custody.
"The thing that I want everybody to know, if you want to put it out there, is the system's broken, and it's the children that are paying for it," Puett said. "No one else. That's my fact. Our children in Kansas are paying for a broken system. That's how I would say that. Word for word."
Booth was taken into state custody after she told authorities her father was verbally abusive. Puett acknowledges he can be loud with his children, and Boothe said she was being stubborn. The Kansas Department for Children and Families recommended she remain with her father and receive support services, but she was placed into KVC care pending an investigation.
The girl spent her days in foster care confined to a room at a KVC administrative building in Topeka. Children there await the availability of a long-term home.
Boothe was one of about 10 children, most 5 to 10 years old, staying in the KVC room. The space includes two couches, two beanbags and a table with chairs. The agency provided ample food, Boothe said, but she wasn't given an option to shower or have her clothes washed.
At night, she was shuttled to shelters or houses in Lawrence, Olathe, Kansas City and two locations in Topeka.
"It kind of aggravated me because I would be tired, and it would be like 9 o'clock at night before I got a placement," Boothe said. "And you could get a placement at any time. Like it would be 11 o'clock. It doesn't matter."
A KVC worker would pick her up between 7 a.m. and noon to return her to the Topeka office.
At one of the evening stays in a Topeka home, she occupied one of six beds in the room for girls. Boothe said two of the girls there tried to "put their hands on me" and hit her in the arm — "you know, typical bullying."
"They called me a bitch. They called me a ho. They said I smelled, and stuff like that," Boothe said. "I mean, nobody would feel good if they got called that."
The next time she was taken to a Topeka home, Boothe texted a friend to pick her up.
"I sneaked out the window and then climbed over the fence," Boothe said, startling her father. "It was a two-story house that I jumped out of, and I was on the second story."
Boothe said she would hang out with different friends in the two weeks that followed. Then she saw the story at CJOnline with Puett's plea to "let her know I love her."
"I went back and kept re-reading it," Boothe said. "I didn't know that they didn't call him. I figured that would be the first person they call. You know? That was after I told them that I wanted to go home the day before I ran."
Jenny Kutz, spokeswoman for KVC, said children who are waiting for placement at the Topeka office can take a shower through an agreement with a local nonprofit. Hygiene bags with toothbrushes are available, and employees will take laundry to a local laundromat.
Confidentiality rules prohibit Kutz or DCF officials from commenting on specific cases.
"It is not typical for a child to stay in a different home every night for the first few days after entering foster care," Kutz said. "Typically, a child is placed with a relative or foster family, and that becomes their long-term placement. Of course, placements are based on children’s levels of need, so children with higher levels of need, such as behavior challenges, are at higher risk of placement instability."
A recent investigative series published by KCUR and The Capital-Journal explored the instability of the Kansas foster care system and a corresponding rise in the number of children who run away.
Puett said authorities want him to return Boothe to the foster care system.
"They were pushing me to give my child up," Puett said. "I was honest with them. I don't trust them. They broke rules by not notifying me ASAP. They, to me, aren't very well organized."