It’s not uncommon that the parents cannot be found or won’t take back their children.

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OVER the past several years, this community has engaged in a serious examination of patterns of mass-incarceration of juveniles and adults. We, as a community, have committed to looking at causes of racial disproportionality and, in passing the recent Best Starts for Kids measure in King County, have recognized that more resources are needed to give our young children the best chance for leading healthy, productive lives.

King County has made substantial progress with juvenile offenders, now averaging about 60 kids in detention a night, down from nearly 200 per night in the 1990s. We have one of the lowest — if not the lowest — incarceration rates for kids in the country, although the rate of incarceration for youths of color remains disturbingly high.

Young and homeless

Editor's note: Editorial writer Jonathan Martin spent several weeks looking at youth homelessness from all angles, traveling in-state and out to talk with kids, parents, foster parents, social workers, state officials and lawmakers. A series of editorials have addressed Martin's findings and appeared alongside columns and guest commentaries addressing this issue.

Video: What would have helped you?

Meet six young people from The Mockingbird Society talk about their experiences being homeless and what helped them get off the streets.

Editorials

Connecticut shows there are better alternatives to juvenile detention

Host homes provide a sense of belonging for homeless youths

Homeless youths left to chance

State needs to divert resources for jailing homeless youths to prevention

Children on the streets slipping through the cracks

State has misplaced priorities on vulnerable teens

The story of one homeless girl, Brittany, who was failed time and time again

Columns

Editor's note: Embracing the state's young and homeless

Jonathan Martin: Homeless youths, their trackers, running around in circles

Jonathan Martin: A grass-roots solution for homeless kids, mowed down by the state

Op-Eds

A call to action: LGBTQ teens need shelter, wraparound services

Is it ever OK to lock up runaway kids? Public officials weigh in

Trudi Inslee: The immediate dangers facing children living on the street

Nobody wants to put runaways in detention — but what do we do?

Young, gay and homeless: Why some parents reject their children


Support for this series

Reporting for this project was made possible with financial support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private, national philanthropic organization that aims to better futures for disadvantaged children in the U.S. The work was done and directed independently of the foundation.


Reddit chat

Jonathan Martin and Megan Gibbard of All Home King County talked about youth homelessness during a recent "Ask Me Anything" Live chat on Reddit.

Although reasonable people can disagree about what types of criminal behavior warrants incarceration, no one believes that locking up children for not attending school or for running away from home or foster care will improve their prospects for the future. These behaviors are often referred to as “status offenses” — and, sadly, Washington locks up more status offenders than any other state.

Although states count these kids in different ways, according to the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, in 2014, Washington locked up 2,705 children for this type of behavior — more than one-third of the children arrested for status offenses nationwide. On the positive side, King County, which has about 30 percent of the state’s population, has issued warrants for only 316 status offender kids. Most of the warrants do not result in bookings — under court policies kids are returned home and given a new court date.


Most kids who are detained see a judge the day following their arrest and are returned to their parents. Or perhaps they are released to the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) and could end up, if no foster bed is available, in a crisis residential center such as Spruce Street, which provides them little opportunity to be linked to community-based services. Certainly, there is no evidence that detention is in the least bit effective in addressing issues of truancy. Detention can start a vicious cycle of homelessness.

Sadly, it is not uncommon that the parents cannot be found or won’t take back their children. In this year’s King County “Count Us In” study, only 65 percent of the kids in detention believed that they had a parent or relative with whom they could live after release. If the parents are not an option, the kids are usually placed in a crisis residential center, from which runaways are frequent.

Who are these kids?

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How has youth homelessness affected you? What do you think society should do to address this problem? Share your thoughts in the form below. A selection of responses may be published in print and online at a later date.

First, to be clear, at least in King County, non-offenders wind up in detention only when they run from placement or fail to appear for a court hearing. Many are foster children — children whose parents are incapable of caring for them and who are placed in the care of DSHS. Others come in through the Becca Law — named after a young runaway who was murdered on the streets in 1993 — which is designed to give assistance to families in crisis, including runaways, kids abusing drugs or alcohol, kids with mental-health issues and kids who are chronically truant from school.

Truancy is being addressed in a number of creative ways across the state. Over the past few years in King County, we have revamped how we approach truancy. Kids are not only kept out of detention, but out of court completely. As King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, has stated: “We don’t want kids to go to court, we want them to go to school.”

More challenging is the issue of kids running away from home — either their own homes when under a court order for services or a foster home — and kids engaging in dangerous behaviors. We need to have better and more available services for families to keep them together. In Washington, before parents can come to court to seek help under the Becca Law, they must first obtain an assessment from a DSHS social worker through the Family Reconciliation Services program. This assessment is necessary to give the court guidance as to what services are needed for the family. Since August, there have been 254 referrals for the FRS program, and only three social workers assigned to this important work. Not surprisingly, there is a growing backlog.

A recent focus group conducted by DSHS’ Children’s Administration indicates that foster kids run when they don’t feel connected to their social worker or to their foster home. But more money, for more social workers and for better support for foster parents, including respite care for foster parents dealing with the most challenging children, is needed to address these concerns.

Some of the most challenging kids are youths with serious mental-health issues. Resources here are woefully short, including only 82 long-term, inpatient beds for the entire state. These kids can be very difficult for their parents to manage and certainly do not belong in detention — but they can wind up there if their needs cannot be met or if they engage in criminal activities.

Why does this matter? Columbia Legal Services will shortly be releasing a study entitled “Falling through the Gaps: How a Stay in Detention Can Lead to Youth Homelessness.” A homeless kid is not a kid in school, is not getting trained for a meaningful job and is subject to being preyed upon and exploited.

As Mary Van Cleve, one of the primary authors of the report, states: “It is unconscionable to discharge any youth from foster care or detention to homelessness. Our state is facing a crisis in resources for at-risk youth and families, and for stable places for at-risk teenagers to live. Detention should not be used as a placement for truant, runaway, or at-risk youth.”

Helen Halpert is a King County Superior Court judge.
Helen Halpert is a King County Superior Court judge.

In addition, 80 percent of kids charged with crimes have been touched in some way by the child-welfare system. We need to intervene effectively before these kids commit crimes and head down a path that all too often ends in adult prison.

There are bright spots. In our community, the Center for Children and Youth Justice, headed by former state Supreme Court Justice Bobbe Bridge, has taken a leading role in policy work involving at risk kids. The recently-launched Youth Program Directory (youthprogramdirectory.org) is an easy way for youths and families to access a wide variety of programs in King County. The Birth-to-Three program offers practically free developmental services, such as speech and physical therapy, and parenting-skills training, to get kids and families on the right track.

In King County, we do not incarcerate a lot of kids for status. But we need to bring this number down even further. We need to do a better job with all of our youths. And certainly we must find a way to keep kids who haven’t committed a crime out of detention and off the streets.