The state system to deal with runaways had three chances to intervene this year for Brittany. But that system is a disjointed mess.

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BRITTANY ran away from home 20 times before her 15th birthday this summer. She slept in the doorways of a church and a youth-services center, using her schoolbook bag as a pillow. She hung out at the library and shoplifted from Safeway. She squatted in an abandoned house and crashed at her friends’ homes.

Last March, she walked all night, a yellow blanket covering her head and backpack, until police spotted her. “I don’t want you to take me back!” she yelled. But the officer did — as they have a dozen times — driving Brittany to the one place she desperately wants to leave: her dad’s apartment.

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.

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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.

The state system to deal with runaways had three chances to intervene this year and at least slow down this girl in constant motion. But that system is a disjointed mess, made worse by budget cuts, leaving teens like Brittany in trouble.

Instead, the state spent nearly $20,000 this year to put Brittany in various forms of detention, but inexplicably delayed mental-health treatment for her suicide attempts; one-on-one counseling with her dad to see if they could reconcile was also delayed.

Brittany’s full name and hometown are withheld to guard her future, but her story touches on common themes among the hundreds of kids homeless on any given day in the state.

Brittany’s first run

Her story, like theirs, is complicated. Brittany’s mom lost her to state custody in 2007 while her father was in prison for a domestic-violence conviction. When her father, Ronald, got out, he fought for years to regain custody of her from foster care and got her back in 2011.

Brittany now describes her dad as mean, saying he locked her out of the house, denied her food and changes of clothes, called her fat and pushed her. “He does stupid stuff when he drinks,” said Brittany. She has long black braids, a sweet smile and wary eyes. She says she’d rather live with the mother who lost her to foster care.

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Ronald is open about his struggle as a “stern but fair” father trying to corral an out-of-control daughter. He adamantly denies hurting her and proudly displays his graduation certificates from a series of parenting classes. When Brittany began running after Christmas 2014, her dad began compiling a 2-inch-thick stack of police reports, truancy notices and failing grade sheets, and met with her school faculty members regularly.

“She comes and goes as she pleases. I’m not one of those kinds of parents that let kids do whatever they please,” he said recently. “I don’t know what else to do.”

The first potential opportunities for intervention were in the seven Child Protective Services (CPS) complaints made since Brittany returned home, many of which she instigated. Ronald’s history, including a recent drunken-driving conviction, ticked off many of CPS’ criteria for risk. But like most teenagers, Brittany’s allegations didn’t rise to the level of the agency’s threshold for abuse or neglect. The agency ruled the complaints as unfounded, but offered Ronald more parenting classes last year, which he declined, according to Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) records.

How truancy led to detention

The second potential intervention was with Brittany’s truancy — she missed 28 days of school in just one quarter. Under Washington’s aggressive truancy and runaway law, known as the Becca Law, schools can file a petition asking a judge to require attendance, as well as services like mental-health counseling. Brittany’s school didn’t file a petition, but tried other approaches, including a family meeting with the dean of students, school officials said.

The third possible intervention was when Ronald went to court in April. He petitioned King County Superior Court, using the Becca Law, to have Brittany declared an “at-risk youth.” That type of order would have kept Brittany at home, but the burden would have been on her: stay in school, comply with mental-health treatment and family counseling or risk being held in contempt of court and maybe sent to detention.

But when Ronald’s petition went to court, Brittany’s public defender heard her abuse and neglect allegations and a judge instead switched it to a Child In Need of Services (CHINS) petition. It is similar to what Ronald wanted, but it acknowledged that Brittany needed to be in foster care for six months while the parent and child reconciled. That put the burden on DSHS to find a temporary foster home.

That circuit breaker, however, failed. DSHS has a desperate shortage of foster homes, especially for kids with difficult histories, such as running away. So instead of a foster home, Brittany ended up in what amounted to detention for nearly four months. Her first stop was at a Seattle group home under contract, called Alternatives to Secure Detention, to provide 24-hour staff monitoring. The restrictions were severe enough that Brittany couldn’t leave for appointments, not even a mental-health evaluation ordered as part of the CHINS petition. The state’s cost for this stay came to more than $15,400.

This is a common problem, said Wesley Saint Clair, King County’s chief juvenile judge. DSHS focuses on younger children and doesn’t seem to have the budget to comply with court orders for teens, he said. “It’s worse than pulling teeth to get them to do anything on a CHINS (petition),” said Saint Clair.

By September, Brittany’s public defender, David Bray, became so frustrated that he sought to have the court hold DSHS in contempt. At a court hearing in Kent, Bray noted DSHS had rejected three potential foster homes. “What has the department done to reunify this family, or find Brittany a placement?” Bray asked. “This is completely unacceptable.”

Brittany, too, was anxious. School was to start in a few days and she wanted to attend classes at her home school, not at the King County juvenile-detention center. “I don’t want to go to the juvie school,” she said, speaking to the judge over speakerphone.

After hearing a DSHS social worker describe challenges finding a foster home, King County Superior Court Judge Veronica Galván agreed with Bray and held the state in contempt. “We can’t just warehouse a child at this critical stage of development.”

Yet that is what happened. A foster home was not found for another five weeks.

‘It feels like we’re warehousing them’

As the months ticked by, Brittany bounced around the system again. DSHS placed her in Spruce Street Crisis Residential Center, a secure youth facility next to the King County juvenile-detention center. At a cost of $182 a day, it was intended to be a safe, short-term place for runaway kids, with a two-week maximum stay. But DSHS still couldn’t find her a foster home, so after her first two weeks, Brittany had to leave for one night — going back home to Ronald — before she went back to Spruce Street for another two weeks.

Spruce Street manager Lana Crawford, frustrated, said the shortage of foster homes has made her facility into a way station for foster kids. “It’s not a good word to use, but it feels like we’re warehousing them,” she said.

In October, four months after the CHINS petition was filed, DSHS finally found Brittany a foster home in South King County and court records show the contempt of court order was lifted.

Brittany finally got a mental-health evaluation and went back to high school. Her attendance is good and her grades are better, but school administrators worry she’s hanging out with the wrong crowd.

Ronald hasn’t seen his daughter for months. He doesn’t know where her foster home is. Despite the intention of a CHINS petition — giving troubled families a pause so they can work on reconciling — Brittany and her dad are not scheduled to have a one-on-one counseling session until just before she’s scheduled to return home in early December.

“If she returns, she’ll run,” he said. He now thinks a second CHINS petition — another six months out of the home — is inevitable. “If she is unhappy under my roof, and she can be where’s she’s happy, as her father, I’d say, ‘OK.’ ”

Brittany signaled over and over that she needed help and wanted to be away from her dad. In response, the system put her in detention for four months and delayed therapy.

Judge Saint Clair shakes his head at these cases. “At some point, we have to have the courage to ask, ‘What are we really doing here?’ ”