Therapeutic help for foster children who run away may be expensive, but it's the right thing to do.
Washington must find a better way to help runaway foster kids than putting them in jail.
Juvenile-detention facilities throughout the state jailed 123 foster kids in 2017. Some of them were picked up and booked repeatedly. In contrast, other kids who run away from their regular families are simply returned home.
Even Ross Hunter, head of the state agency that is effectively putting foster kids in jail, agrees Washington should not be jailing noncriminal runaways.
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Hunter, secretary of the Department of Children, Youth and Families, says it’s not a simple problem, because children face other threats, such as drugs and prostitution, while on the run.
Finding therapeutic help isn’t easy or inexpensive, but the state still must provide it.
The state frankly doesn’t know what to do with foster kids who aren’t breaking any laws other than running away from foster placement, as Times reporter Nina Shapiro illustrated last week in her story on runaway foster children.
“I’ve got to figure this one out in a hurry,” Hunter said, calling the issue a “moral conundrum.” Fixing problems in the foster-care system is one of the many challenges in his job, created after the state recently reorganized its services to children.
Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, proposed a bill that would phase out the jailing of all runaways, as well as truants and other children considered at risk. But Senate Bill 5290 does not include funding for any other potential solutions, such as therapeutic facilities where young people can get mental-health treatment and help with substance-abuse issues. Lawmakers should pass this bill, which has passed out of committee but is awaiting action in Senate Ways & Means, but give it the funding required to create good alternatives to jail.
At the very least, runaway foster kids should be returned to their social workers, so their needs can be immediately addressed by someone familiar with them and their situation. Sometimes the correct response may be to leave a runaway foster child right where they are found — in a shelter or sleeping at a friend’s house — because they’re safe, getting what they need and not sleeping on the street. Putting them in jail could add to the trauma that may already be prevalent in a foster child’s life.
The Department of Children, Youth and Families has other policies that should be reconsidered, such as sending foster kids they can’t find placements for to out-of-state facilities. Better treatment of foster children, while taking their individual situations into account, will cost more time and money, but it is necessary.
Foster children are not criminals. They are in difficult situations they did not create. The state of Washington and its citizens should want only the best for these young people so they may someday become successful adults.