"I've done nothing wrong," said a 14-year-old after she landed in jail for the fourth time. Many agree, and are trying to stop Washington state from arresting runaway foster kids. The head of the agency responsible says he wants to, but faces a "moral conundrum."

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She is 14, and looking for a family.

She had one once. Her mom died of cancer a couple of years ago, and her dad killed himself five months later. She became a ward of the state.

But the state, as she sees it, doesn’t know what do with her. Short on foster families willing to take teens, it first parked her in a group facility.

She felt stuck, sitting on her butt doing nothing. “How can I get adopted by someone if I can’t go out and do things and meet people?” asked the girl, whose name The Seattle Times is withholding to protect her privacy.

So, in January 2018, when a teen she met at the facility offered an introduction to a “street mom,” she ran. She’s been running off and on ever since — once remaining missing for four months. Thin, with dark hair she sometimes tucks into a bun, leaving a sweep of hair in front, she preferred living with the “family” she found herself, even if they were all in desperate straits together, holed up in tents on dismal patches of land near the freeway.

Last month, though, she was stuck again. More precisely, she was locked up — in King County’s youth jail.

She hadn’t committed a crime. In Washington, unlike in many states, running from a foster placement is a jailable offense. Juvenile-detention facilities throughout the state jailed 123 foster kids in 2017, sometimes multiple times.

Four times in the case of this 14-year-old. She was booked, told to take off the special rings that were gifts from friends, patted down. She walked through a metal detector, put her clothes in a bag and pulled on a dark-green jail jumpsuit. Placed in a separate wing for noncriminal detainees, she was often alone. And though she knew the jail wasn’t as bad as the grown-up variety, she said she didn’t much like the graffiti that spoke about gross things, the blood stain on her mattress or the handcuffs and shackles she briefly wore.

“I’ve done nothing wrong,” she protested.

Jail was supposed to keep her safe and get her help. Ultimately, it did neither.

So what’s the point, many ask, as they try to end a practice debated for years, and one they say brings more trauma into the lives of foster kids who have already experienced too much.

Even the head of the state agency that gets court warrants to put kids in jail agrees it’s wrong. “These are victims. These are not criminals,” said Ross Hunter, secretary of the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF), which oversees foster care. A former legislator, he had supported bills to reform so-called Becca laws, named after a murdered runaway, and by some accounts making Washington the most frequent jailer of noncriminal kids.

He could just stop seeking warrants. But what to do instead?

That’s the question Hunter kept puzzling over in a series of interviews, one spent in part tramping through University District homeless encampments looking for the 14-year-old. Released from jail, she had run yet again. Like other runaways, she faced harms possibly worse than detention.

“I’ve got to figure this one out in a hurry,” Hunter said, calling the issue a “moral conundrum.” It is one of the many tests he faces as head of a new agency meant to fix longstanding problems in the foster-care system.

Trying to force the issue, the King County Department of Public Defense last month filed a “habeas” court challenge on the girl’s behalf, saying she was being held without due process.

Meanwhile, a bill in Olympia would phase out the jailing of runaways — and other “status offenders,” including truants and children deemed at risk by a judge — over the next two years. King County is trying to reach agreement with the state to stop the detention of runaway foster kids immediately.

“Purge condition”

The 14-year-old knew the drill: Warrant, arrest, detention, court.

She might be handcuffed when arrested, or while being taken from detention to the King County Courthouse. She sometimes had cuffs put on her feet, too, while walking from a van to the courthouse elevators, she said in a declaration filed with her habeas motion. “It’s embarrassing to walk around like that, kids look at me weird.”

A judge could then order her back to detention for up to six more days, or until she fulfilled a “purge condition,” like writing a two-page paper on where she saw herself in 10 years, or reading a book on human trafficking.

Then back to DCYF for placement for who knows how long before she ran away again.

She had her reasons. In one facility, Pioneer Youth Center – Spruce Street, a kid kept trying to touch her, she said.

Several runs and placements later, she ended up back at Spruce Street and was willing to stay — but the facility’s 30-day limit was up.

DCYF, as it sometimes does with foster kids it can’t find placements for, wanted to send her out of state. That’s another controversial practice, especially after an October Disability Rights Washington report alleged foster kids placed in one Iowa facility were abused.

The 14-year-old was supposed to go to another Iowa facility run by the same outfit. But she didn’t want to leave the state — away from her street family. She hadn’t taken to the “mom” she first ran to, but she met others, most notably a man in his early 20s.

The state was concerned about the relationship, it said in legal papers, though the girl told a lawyer he was not a boyfriend. Last June, he called the teen’s state social worker and set up a meeting at a Starbucks. The girl refused to return to state care.

“The people I live with when I’m out there, they keep me so I don’t harm myself,” she said. It was mid-January, and she was talking in a room off a courthouse hallway, before a hearing to decide where she should go next.

She had just been detained for the fourth time, and had on the telltale green jumpsuit. Her words came quickly, in stream-of-consciousness bursts, like when she described what it’s like to wait for the next placement.

“Every time this happens, I never know what’s going to happen. With every single kid, they never know what’s going on. You just sit there and sit there and sit there, waiting and waiting …”

Some kids, she knew, ended up spending the night at a DCYF office because there was no place to put them, or they landed in a hotel, as 100 foster children did last year.

Lawyers with her, including Anita Khandelwal, director of the county’s Department of Public Defense, said they knew DCYF had challenges finding placements. “One thing is very clear,” Khandelwal said, however. Their client “does not belong in jail.”

Runaways end up being released back to DCYF, she said. Why not skip a step and have police deliver them straight to the agency? When kids not in foster care run away, Khandelwal pointed out, police who find them usually just take them home.

Tara Urs, who works on policy for public defenders and filed the habeas motion that morning, said the threat of jail makes kids more unsafe, not less. Fearing arrest, they hide out, avoiding school or shelters.

Instead, Urs wanted DCYF to find out what her 14-year-old client needed and where she was willing to stay — such as with an aunt, with whom she felt safe. The aunt had Parkinson’s and diabetes, but Urs said the state could see if anything could make it work.

At the hearing, the state, again, had a book it wanted the teen to read and a paper for her to write before being released.

Judge Theresa Doyle said she wasn’t convinced that either would be productive, and ordered the teen released.

Some judges feel jail is necessary to enforce court orders directing kids to remain in state care. But Doyle continues to veer from that notion. After finding out another teen before her in February had been handcuffed and shackled, she said: “I think this falls under the rubric of having suffered enough.”

The day after the 14-year-old’s hearing, she stood outside Spruce Street, where she had been placed yet again. She said she knew of four residents who wanted to run. A buzzer went off when kids pressed on the door, but that was no big deal.

Within days, she was gone.

Handing out fliers

Two weeks later, with DCYF boss Hunter on an information-gathering ride-along, David Martz, one of the department’s nine runaway “locators,” knocked on the door of the University District Youth Center, a drop-in space for homeless young adults, looking for her.

The center was closed, but program manager Jason McGill let them in. McGill said he hadn’t seen the girl lately, though he had in the past with her 20-something male companion.

McGill said he worried about her. She was then 13.

“We really need to figure out how to change the policies in Washington,” he told Hunter and Martz.

He said where he came from, back East, she would have been placed in a locked facility — not jail, McGill later clarified, but a place that offered therapy to help kids with trauma and addiction. Teens as young as 13 or 14 were too vulnerable to be allowed to run, he said.

“I can’t lock her anywhere,” Hunter told McGill. “Maybe for a couple of days somewhere,” he added, alluding to detention.

Jail is not ideal, concedes Lisa West, president of the Washington Association of Juvenile Court Administrators, who nonetheless opposes the bill that would end it for noncriminal youth. “But it’s all that this state has,” she testified at a Senate hearing last month. At least in jail, she said, kids get medical and mental-health checks, and the possibility of needed intervention.

“Sometimes it just takes that moment in time,” she added later by phone.

Other states manage without locks. California has 215 short-stay therapeutic facilities, according to Michael Weston, spokesperson for the state’s Department of Social Services. State law does not allow locked facilities for those in foster care, he said.

For Oregon’s Department of Human Services, chronic runaways are a struggle, said Greg Thomas, who works with caseworkers statewide. Rather than jail or locked facilities, though, it relies on “a lot of creative plans” to find the best answers for each kid, he said.

“They’re usually running to something,” Thomas said, so a start is finding out what that something is.

In the meantime, Thomas said, if a runaway is found somewhere safe, say at a friend’s or relative’s place, “we try to keep them wherever they’re at.”

In King County, warrants often lead police to take kids from safe places — facilities with state-funded beds for street youth — and bring them to jail, according to Marcus Stubblefield, manager of criminal-justice policy for the county.

“We should stop doing that,” Hunter agreed.

He said a possible agreement between his agency and King County might entail using these beds for street youth as alternatives to jail.

Can these beds be used throughout the state? he wondered. He didn’t know. There aren’t as many in every county.

And even in this one, he wasn’t sure what to do about what he called “the worst case scenario” — the kid found on the street late at night, maybe shooting up, maybe sexually exploited, or maybe just really, really young.

After the stop at the University District Youth Center, Hunter went with Martz as the locator drove along the Ave looking for the 14-year-old, and showed fliers with the girl’s picture to staff at a pharmacy and neighborhood library.

“We’re just really worried about her,” Martz kept saying. Nobody had seen her.

Then, he hit several clusters of tents near Interstate 5. Out of one elaborate construction covered with a tarp, two men and a woman emerged who knew the girl.

Around August, the teen and her male companion pitched a tent a few yards from theirs, said Maureen Michael. The guy, she said, confided he didn’t know what to do. The girl cried a lot.

Not long after, she had her 14th birthday. That’s when people living there realized how young she was, and how much older he was.

“People got all upset,” Michael said. “They were going to report them.” The pair disappeared quickly.

A few streets away, up a muddy embankment, Martz met another man by a tent who had seen the girl in the past.

“She’s in the area,” Martz concluded as he and Hunter headed back to the car. But he didn’t know where else to look.

Hopefully, someone he talked to today would call him after spotting her. Or he would try again the next time he was in the area.

There were 21 missing foster kids in King County at that moment, and he was off to search for the next one.