When Krystina Kessler went to county officials in early 2003 to ask to be removed from her abusive home, she thought life was finally going to get better.

But after being shuffled through a string of foster and group homes where she said she encountered violence and prostitutes, the 16-year-old decided she would be better off on her own and ran away from the system designed to protect her.

"When kids are running away or making allegations about a home, that should be a clear clue something is going on because they are being placed in uncomfortable and unsafe situations," said Krystina, a former sheriff's Explorer scout and A-student who is now living with a friend's mother. "There's a lot of kids running away."

Krystina, whose story has been confirmed by county officials, is one of a growing number of foster children in Los Angeles County who officials say have run away, been abducted or are just listed as missing from the system.

While the number of children in foster care has declined, the number of foster runaways and abductees jumped 23 percent in Los Angeles County in the past three years - to 913 as of Dec. 1.

Statewide, foster runaways more than doubled in the five years since 1999 - to 1,160 last year . Nationally, the number rose 25 percent since 1999 - to 10,560 in 2003, the latest year available.

State and county officials are quick to point out gains in the system - including a drop in foster care abuse cases, fewer children in the system overall, and less time, on average, for children in foster homes. They also say they are working to improve the quality of foster homes.

But challenges remain, they add, because of inadequate funding for proper oversight.

David Sanders, director of the county Department of Children and Family Services, said he believes some of the increase in runaways involves a growing number of older children who are increasingly left unadopted in foster care.

"One of the things I believe has happened in a lot of jurisdictions is as the number of kids in care has come down, the kids left in care are a little older, and that is the age most likely to run," Sanders said.

Andrew Bridge, former director of the Alliance for Children's Rights, said safety is a critical question.

"When you talk to most social workers and kids who run away from group homes and ask them why kids disappear, it always seems to come down to the issue that they just don't feel safe," he said.

The increases in foster runaways are coming even after officials three years ago acknowledged hundreds of children were missing from the system and the county Board of Supervisors moved to address the problem.

Supervisors directed officials to create a special task force and Web site with the names and pictures of the children, and ordered various departments to work more closely with law enforcement to find the children.

But efforts to locate the missing children have met with little success, and after the retirement of its chair, the Children Missing in Foster Care task force was disbanded.

Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich said he plans to introduce a motion Tuesday asking Sanders to report on the status of the board's earlier requests and to restore the task force.

"Supervisor Gloria Molina is very concerned about this," said her spokeswoman, Roxane Marquez. "At Tuesday's board meeting, Dr. Sanders will need to explain why the board directive was ignored. Clearly, it was.

"More importantly, he'll have to explain why there is no plan to find all these missing kids. The department should be acting with the same urgency as if it was their child who ran away."

Eric Ball, director of DCFS's Runaway Adolescent Program, said his efforts are hampered by staffing.

He used to have seven employees working to locate missing children - now he only has five, he said.

His program, which includes two employees who drive throughout the county searching for runaways, locates about five to 10 children a week, he said. The Web site helps DCFS find about five children a month.

"About 50 percent are hardened street kids who have had bad experiences with the system or the court system and are not willing to come back," Ball said. "A lot of these kids end up being prostituted or turning to survival sex to try to make ends meet."

In the last decade, officials say about 10 children in the county who were abducted or ran away were slain or died in accidents, including 14-year-old runaway Desiree Collins, who was shot to death in early 2002 in North Hills.

"The government doesn't keep track of how many of these kids from foster care die out there," said William Tower, president of the California chapter of the American Family Rights Association. "Do you know why? Because it scares them to death."

Sanders said he plans to have workers compare the lists of foster runaways and abducted children over the last few years with coroner's records to determine whether some might have died.

And Sanders said that despite the disbanding of the task force, the department is undertaking steps to stem foster runaways, including a San Fernando Valley pilot project that provides mental health and other services to older youth at risk of running away.

"In talking to youth, they frequently run to people they know or to their family," Sanders said. "And maybe that family is an appropriate place for them to be. I think the running behavior suggests they are dissatisfied with the group home or foster home."

Krystina, who said she someday wants to be director of DCFS, spoke at the supervisors' meeting last month, requesting an investigation into why children are missing from the system.

After the hearing, Antonovich directed his children's deputy to find her a new social worker, who now is working to help Krystina's current caretaker become her foster parent.

"I really believe I can make a difference," Krystina said. "I think there is a purpose for everything. I see how many kids need help. I want to fix the system, which I will some day.

"And I really want to be adopted. I want to have a normal life and be in a family. I can't get that in foster care. I'm trying to find a family forever."

Troy Anderson, (213) 974-8985 troy.anderson@dailynews.com