Katrina Bohnenkamp was 15 when she vanished in 2012. Police took eight months to issue a press release. From January, it will be a crime to tell her story.
Katrina Bohnenkamp leans into the camera, eyes wide, and sticks out her tongue. For another Facebook selfie she lies back with her earphones in. In another shot, she checks out a zebra-print bra.
“gotta love shopping at 10pm in Kmart bored as f---,” she posted in 2012.
Katrina was 15 and living in a unit on her own in Greenacre in Sydney’s west. It was a red-brick block on a cul-de-sac lined with paperbark trees, her latest placement after a decade spent in foster care, in refuges or homeless.
It was an address police knew well.
Up to six children lived in the building and officers were regularly called about assaults or runaways.
“She was doing her resume with me, wanting to find employment, anywhere,” says Tash*, the last youth worker to look after Katrina.
She had worked at Pizza Capers and a horse-riding club before, but the resume went unfinished. She was upset with some of the other girls that night, Tash says.
“I tried to encourage her to stay. She just said ‘I’m going’ and she left.” She did not say where she was going.
Sometimes Katrina stayed the night with a boyfriend but it was staff policy to call the cops whenever a child was absent after curfew. Tash says she waited about 30 to 45 minutes to call. Police came, took details, said to ring back the next day if Katrina was still gone.
Six years later, Katrina, a ward of the state, has never been found. Believing she may be dead, police have referred her case to the coroner.
Time is critical in missing persons investigations and NSW Police instructs officers on how to avoid delays in launching public appeals.
But a Herald investigation has uncovered an apparent lack of urgency among police who waited eight months to put out a media release. Family members say police took months to interview them about Katrina’s disappearance. Police say she had brown eyes, when photos show they were blue-green. Police reports also disagree on when Katrina was last seen.
In addition, relatives say the department of Family and Community Services downplayed months of no contact by claiming she would turn up when she was hungry.
Minister Pru Goward, who had legal parental responsibility for Katrina, has refused to answer questions about her department’s handling of missing persons cases.
And from next year, new laws pushed by her department would require media to gain a coroner’s approval to identify a child who has died while in care.
Without that permission, it would be a criminal offence to report that Katrina disappeared from a dysfunctional out-of-home care system that accounts for a torrent of missing persons reports.
Recent research has found the responses of NSW police and care agencies to these reports “criminalises and endangers the safety” of children missing from care, raising concerns about who advocates for them.
“They’re obviously tucked away somewhere with a mate or a friend,” one officer told the researchers. “But they always return.”
‘A child again’
Jaide Simpson found her “hilarious” half-sister on Facebook after a childhood spent apart.
“She was such a witty, funny girl,” Jaide says. “She was gorgeous. She had the best heart.”
Born in May 1997, Katrina was removed from her parents’ care when she was a toddler because of their homelessness and drug problems, an agency report shows.
For roughly a year she lived with Indigenous family members on her mother’s side in Dubbo, then with a relative on her father’s side in Sydney, then with a succession of foster families and care agencies - a total of 11 placements in 11 years by the time she was 13.
“I found her on Facebook, just after her 14th birthday,” says Lee Schellnegger, a second cousin whom Katrina came to live with in Dubbo.
Katrina had been using cannabis for years and was still smoking cigarettes, despite her bronchitis. She had spent time in juvenile detention and had terrible dreams.
“From the minute she closed her eyes, she screamed and cried,” Lee says.
Katrina mentioned being sexually abused and acted provocatively around older men, Lee says, while FACS alluded to her having been a child prostitute.
Cuddly, aggressive, cuddly again - Katrina snapped between different moods and resisted Lee’s rules.
But Melissa*, another relative who took over her care, says she eventually settled down more. She was doing distance education, staying home at night, not smoking.
“I think she realised she could be a child again,” Melissa says. “She always wanted to help the kids do stuff. She loved horses.”
According to her family in Dubbo, FACS offered little support, only more money, when Katrina’s behaviour worsened again.
She wanted to go back to Sydney and her caseworker arranged the flights but Melissa says Katrina felt there was nowhere she belonged.
“She said ‘no matter where I go there will always be a part of me missing because I can’t be with my mum and dad’.”
The Herald has been unable to contact either of her birth parents.
Of the 38,000 people who go missing across Australia each year, about half are children aged 13 to 17. Of these, many are in state care, running away to family or friends or into exploitative relationships. Neglect, domestic violence, bullying, drug and alcohol use and racism are among the triggers.
“There has traditionally been a view that young people who go missing a lot are at lower risk because they always come back,” says Victorian detective Boris Buick, who has researched the area.
“But the reality is that people who repeatedly go missing are in fact at higher risk of sexual exploitation, among other risks, and are easily targeted.”
Both Family and Community Services in NSW and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse have made similar findings.
Under trial reforms, Victoria is gathering more information on frequently missing children while also issuing more “no harbouring” notices to older men they are found with. Queensland, too, has embarked on reforms after the disappearance and murder of 12-year-old foster child Tiahleigh Palmer.
But in NSW, responses from authorities and carers “criminalise and endanger the safety of children missing in care”, according to Charles Sturt University researchers.
Lecturer Emma Colvin says people who want to exploit children or recruit them for criminal activity know where the care homes are.
“They know the kids are vulnerable and that people are less likely to look for them and that the kids aren’t going to seek out the cops for help,” she says.
Children missing from care require enormous resources from police but often they turn up within a day.
“That can lead, when they go missing, to it not being treated seriously,” Colvin says.
Her study - published this year in the peer-reviewed Howard Journal of Crime and Justice - found poor co-operation between police and care agencies as well as a punitive approach to runaway children.
“While some police participants acknowledged that children might be unsafe both in care and when missing, their concern was overshadowed by a prevailing attitude of irritation and annoyance,” the researchers found.
“These responses, coloured by resentment at being involved in missing children cases, may also mask potential risks faced by vulnerable children.”
A former youth worker at Guardian says police receiving missing persons reports for children as young as 14 had told her to wait 12 to 24 hours before calling back to make an official report.
A police spokeswoman declined to comment on the study but said police took all missing persons reports seriously. She said in some instances "it is not operationally viable or appropriate to make public appeals".
"Any child who is missing or absent from placement is deemed to be at extreme risk of exploitation and it is a serious concern for police and our partner agencies," she said.
The agency and the investigation
“It was really not a good time,” says Tash, the youth worker who last saw Katrina.
Having left Dubbo and another foster home, Katrina returned to a residential care agency she knew, one that claimed to take the children no-one else would: Guardian Youth Care.
The publicly-funded charity was not meant to run at a profit. But after Guardian went bust last year, liquidators reported subcontracts worth millions of dollars had benefited ventures owned by its shadow director Roy Bijkerk, a one-time cocaine smuggler, and his business partner Ned Bikic, a convicted murderer.
FACS accused Guardian of a $20 million misappropriation, a claim former directors deny. Former residents and staff have described chronic money shortages, dilapidated homes, marathon shifts and dangerous combinations of children.
Tash says she was working on her own in 14-hour shifts at times and had struggled to stop girls from severely bullying Katrina.
“I really do believe if she wasn’t there she would have been fine,” she says.
The then chief executive of Guardian, Ivan Brown, said only “we notified police and we notified FACS".
A week after Katrina disappeared, police returned with forensic detectives and interviewed some of the other children. Early on, she was reportedly seen in Blacktown, Quakers Hill and Riverstone but police have not confirmed any sightings.
Katrina has not used her bank accounts, family say.