Over the past eight years, the state has reduced youth-shelter beds and closed treatment centers and crisis residential facilities, which can be a lifeline for children and their parents. The lack of those services hollowed out the promise of the Becca laws.
A 15-year-old boy with skinny calves and huge feet is marched into the King County Juvenile Detention Center, where he is stripped down, checked for lice and handed a green prison-issue jumpsuit. He spends the next two days sleeping in a cinder-block cell with a concrete slab for a bed.
His “crime?” He ran away from an uncle’s home where he said he wasn’t fed.
Follow the money that Washington state spends intervening with runaway kids and those who skip school, and you might believe this state wants to see them all locked up in jail.
Who was Becca?
Rebecca Hedman was adopted out of foster care at age 5 after being sexually abused by her birth mother. At 12, she began running from her home in Tacoma, and she became addicted to crack cocaine. Her adoptive parents, Dennis and Darlene Hedman, sent Becca to drug treatment in Spokane in the summer of 1993, but she repeatedly ran away and worked in prostitution. She was bludgeoned to death by a john, named John Medlock, and her nude body was found on the banks of the Spokane River on Oct. 18, 1993.
The laws that underpin this embarrassment were passed 20 years ago under what’s known as the Becca laws, named for a 13-year-old Tacoma girl who ran away from home repeatedly, became addicted to crack and fell into prostitution. She was murdered by a john.
Intended as a way for parents to intervene with help from the court system, the laws have become a vehicle to routinely jail youths.
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The state spends millions to funnel noncriminal adolescent rebellion into juvenile courts, but lawmakers shortchange those kids and their families by allowing unconscionable waiting lists for drug treatment and mental-health care.
The consequence of those screwed-up funding priorities is shameful. Washington sends more truant and runaway kids to jail than any other state by at least a factor or two, according to U.S. Justice Department numbers.
In fact, in 2014 this state jailed one-third of the 7,466 young people detained across the nation for so-called “status offenses” — running away from home or skipping school.
Statewide, one out of every six kids admitted to a juvenile detention center aren’t there for crimes, but for violating court orders regarding truancy and running away, according to data from the state Department of Social and Health Services.
The Becca laws empowered parents to more strongly intervene on behalf of their children with court petitions. The potential use of detention was to be a last-resort stick to convince wayward kids to go straight. But the Becca laws also promised help when struggling families stepped forward.
The Becca bill was supposed to be about helping runaways, not putting kids in detention.” - Dennis Hedman
Over the decades, state funding for those services eroded, leaving a mostly empty promise and lots of kids sleeping in cinder-block cells despite having not committed a crime. That fact saddens Rebecca Hedman’s parents. “The Becca bill was supposed to be about helping runaways, not putting kids in detention,” said Dennis Hedman.
Last year, the Legislature created the first statewide homeless youth prevention office and tasked it with reconfiguring Washington’s response to troubled youths.
This year, lawmakers should finally recognize the damage unnecessary detention does and ban the use of jails for noncriminal offenses. More than half of U.S. states never send kids to jail for these cases.
At $262 a day, detention is expensive. Research shows juvenile detention is a leading indicator of future adult incarceration.
The Legislature should also follow the lead of other states — and a few counties, such as Clark County — and divert status offenders from court, except in the most dire cases wherechildren are in imminent danger of hurting themselves.
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The state should shift its money toward prevention. Over the past eight years, the state has reduced youth-shelter beds and closed treatment centers and crisis residential facilities, which can be a lifeline for children and their parents. The lack of those services hollowed out the promise of the Becca laws.
Instead, the state created a prison pipeline for kids who haven’t committed a crime. That’s the real crime.
Washington spends $7 million a year funneling serial runaways and truants to juvenile courts where, as the thinking goes, judges will talk some sense into them.
However, that’s often not what happens. In this state’s twisted evolution of the Becca laws, judges can order problem-solving interventions, such as mental-health counseling or drug treatment, but the state doesn’t dedicate money to pay for them. The state Department of Social and Health Services controls that money but is reluctant to open its checkbook.
That often leaves judges, frustrated by the lack of resources, with one unequivocal power: sending kids to detention if they don’t follow their court orders. That’s a big reason that Washington jails so many kids for noncriminal offenses.
“Some judges feel to change the behavior of a truant requires a hammer,” said Spokane County Superior Court Commissioner Steven Grovdahl, a co-chair of a statewide working group focused on Becca laws.
Twenty years since the Becca laws were enacted, it is well past time for Washington state to end detention for status offenses, such as skipping school and running away. The state must stop being the nation’s leading jailer of kids not charged with a crime.
Federal law already discourages the practice for good reasons: Truancy and running away are not crimes, and the foundation of the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation, not punishment. Jailing noncriminal youths undermines that value.
But a 1980 federal law preserved judicial power to detain status offenders under a valid court order — primarily when a kid ignores the judge and skips school, or runs away — so long as that power is used rarely. Washington has used this exception so often that it lost $2.7 million in federal money in the 2000s. It is now back in compliance, but just barely.
In reforming the Becca laws, Washington should consider the model of Connecticut. In 2005, that state banned detention for noncriminal offenses and spent two years setting up a system that diverts these cases out of juvenile courts and into social-services hubs. Kids are screened for mental-health problems and families are routinely offered an array of support services. The result: Four out of five kids did not have further involvement with juvenile courts in Connecticut.
We as a country are moving away from not just locking up status offenders but (from) having them in the juvenile justice system at all.” - Lisa Pilnik
“Washington has been an outlier for a long time,” said Lisa Pilnik of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, a Washington, D.C.,-based advocacy group. “We as a country are moving away from not just locking up status offenders but (from) having them in the juvenile justice system at all. People are realizing youth are better served by community-based services.”
Legislators should also look in-state for reform models. The Truancy Project routinely diverts kids in Clark County from court. The county hardly ever sends these kids to detention. Yet it has seen school attendance skyrocket and the number of school disciplinary incidents fell by two-thirds.
“When you dig into these kids’ lives and you look at who those kids are, and their adverse childhood experiences and their mental-health histories, it’s amazing we’d think that detention is an option,” said Jodi Martin of the Clark County Juvenile Court.
On a recent day, the pod in the King County Juvenile Detention Center had a pair of youths, including a foster child with a mane of bright red curls who had ran away from a foster home. Staff take pride in separating these kids from youths charged with criminal offenses, but their cells are indistinguishable.
State Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, a leading legislative proponent for ending the practice, noted that many runaways have untreated psychiatric problems. “Tell me again, how does detention for kids with mental illness help stop the behaviors?” she said.
Her primary opposition in the Legislature will be state Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, the prime architect of the Becca laws. He counts them as the prime achievement of his 30-year tenure in Olympia. His home county, Grays Harbor, has 1 percent of the state population but one-fifth of the state’s detention admissions for status offenses.
“I’m concerned about the use of detention” for status offenders, he said. “But that’s different from saying it’s not necessary. Some kids you can talk into changing behaviors. But some you can’t. You need a backstop.”
That approach, however, leads straight to ineffective — and expensive — jail stints. Juvenile detention costs $262 a day, more than triple the rate of a state-funded shelter bed and double the cost of wraparound social services.
Other states have already figured out this math. After 20 years, Washington needs to end its path to jail for runaways and kids skipping school.
A 16-year-old girl whose initials are J.K. was picked up this fall by Kirkland police. A judge had issued an warrant because she ran away from a foster home — as she had done before.
The Kirkland Police knew her on sight and the officer could have taken her to the King County Juvenile Detention Center. Washington is one of the dwindling number of states that routinely jails kids not accused of a crime.
Instead, J.K. went to Spruce Street Inn Crisis Residential Center, a secure Seattle group home, with locked doors, for runaways. Under the Becca laws, the state pays for 11 such facilities, called crisis residential centers (CRCs), located around the state, as well as a small network of beds in youth shelters.
These resources offer a short-term alternative to sending kids to juvenile lockup. The Legislature should view the CRCs and shelter beds as points of intervention, which line up runaways with mental-health and drug treatments, and fund them better.
But in the 20 years since the Becca laws were enacted, funding for these facilities have been gutted. They have been so poorly managed by the state Department of Social and Health Services that their beds are used only 49 percent of the time.
At Spruce Street, J.K. sat on a hard plastic bench, picking at the gray sweats she’d been issued. None of the kids at Spruce Street are allowed to wear shoes to make it more uncomfortable should they try to run from the facility.
The Legislature should view the CRCs and shelter beds as points of intervention, which line up runaways with mental-health and drug treatments, and fund them better.”
J.K. was frustrated to be out of school but seemed to welcome the respite. “If we didn’t have places like this, where would we be?” she asked. “In juvie? On the streets? At home where our brother hurts us?”
These very vulnerable youths need more help than they can get in jail. Yet the budget numbers tell the story of a state that shrugs its shoulders.
During the Great Recession, state funding for the shelter beds and CRCs was cut by 50 percent, to about $10 million a year, and hasn’t been restored. The state spends less now than it did in 2008 for these vital resources for runaway kids and the overall number of beds has plunged from 138 to 89, in part because DSHS hasn’t made it a priority in its budget requests.
The rock-bottom rate means Spruce Street has just one case manager per shift for an 18-bed facility and no mental-health or drug treatment specialists on staff. Other CRCs around the state similarly feel the pinch.
“Our staff doesn’t know if there will be a job here in six months or if they should go work at the burger joint for the same amount of money,” said Scott Hanke, manager of the Oak Grove Secure Crisis Residential Center in Vancouver.
This is a classic example of bad state budgeting: spending just enough to keep a few beds open, but not enough to do the work.
The state should restore the pre-recession cuts, but with an important caveat. Two of the CRCs — in Wenatchee and in Port Angeles — are housed inside juvenile detention centers. As the state moves to end detention stays for youths not charged with a crime, those facilities should be moved outside of the jail walls.
The message to state lawmakers and county officials should be clear: Invest in intervention.