The effort to stop jailing Washington’s runaway foster kids
Foster kids are wards of the state. In Washington, if those kids run away, they can be arrested and placed in youth detention until officials can get them back into placement.
A total of 125 children spent at least one night in a hotel — until permanent placement could be found — between September 2018 to February 2019. Others have been shipped out-of-state — a practice that has come under criticism recently after foster kids were sent to a group home in Iowa alleged verbal and physical abuse, claiming the home was run like a prison.
Patrick Dowd is the Director of The Office of Family and Children Ombuds. It’s the watchdog group that looks out for kids in the state’s foster system. He says that in many cases, once they catch the runaways, there’s often no place for them to go.
“The state, on one hand, is trying to reduce the number of youth who are placed in institutional type group care facilities, as well as sending children out-of-state to those types of group care facilitates,” Dowd said. “But at the same time we haven’t done anything to increase our capacity to place children who have high-level needs in a family-type, therapeutic foster home.”
According to Columbia Legal Services, foster youth were incarcerated 268 times for running away in 2017. Mary Van Cleave is a lawyer there who has worked with many runaway foster kids.
“One girl did tell me directly that she had been on the run for three years,” Van Cleave said. “I remember her telling me that the first time she went into detention, she felt it was a turning point in her life, because that is where she realized that nobody cared about her, and in her mind, it made her feel like the system had given up on her and that she was bad. After that, it didn’t matter to her how many times she was arrested.”
“The state needs to make the commitment, and the Legislature make needs to make the commitment to address the needs of those kids, both DCYF and the Legislature,” she said. “…. DCYS has had a problem with turn over with high caseloads, and you know one of the ways to bring down high caseloads is to hire more caseworkers and that requires money.”
For the last two years, Senator Jeannie Darneille has been trying to stop making it legal to arrest foster kids for running away. In this legislative session, Senate Bill 5290 and a companion House Bill 1434 would end the practice.
“The court as taken a loophole in the federal law that allows them to incarcerate these children,” Darneille said. “The State of Washington is by far the outlier in using this exception — it’s called the valid court order exception — in allowing courts across the state to incarcerate these children, much more than other states. In fact, 26 states have already eliminated the use of the valid court order.”
Darneille says that she drafted the bill because the practice of arresting runaway foster kids is inhumane.
“To be put in shackles, in a court room, taken and strip searched, put in a jumpsuit, is all dehumanizing and very, very harmful to these children,” she said.
If the bill passes this session, there will be a two-year phase out as they work on funding services to help these kids.
But, Darneille says if the bill fails, again, Washington will continue to be in conflict with federal law.
“We would be placing ourselves, again, in the position where we say ‘it is better spending money incarcerating children than to spend money with services they need so they and their families can face challenges that they have,” she said.