December 31, 1995 in Nation/World

A Girl Lost; A Father Crusading Runaway’s Dad Says Parents Still Helpless Despite State’s ‘Becca Bill’

By The Spokesman-Review
 

He posted 850 pictures of her sullen face along Spokane streets, then created an Internet web page featuring her photograph and the tip that she often wears a ring through her lower lip.

Bob Kirkpatrick wants his 14-year-old daughter back in his South Hill home. He’s preparing to leave home himself, for a few days, to search Seattle’s underside for his girl.

Little more than a year ago, Megan Kirkpatrick was an outgoing seventh-grader at Sacajawea Middle School. Now she’s a street-girl runaway, panhandling for cash, shooting heroin, getting raped.

Inside her father’s home, Megan’s Christmas stocking hangs on the tree, waiting for her. The pictures on the wall show her as a playful child with a smile that could coax a grin out of almost anyone.

“This was a child who would come up to people in supermarkets and say, ‘Hi, I’m Megan,”’ Kirkpatrick recalls. “She is artistic, jovial, gregarious. She’s got a remarkable sense of humor. … She’s just missing something. I’d give anything to know what it is.”

He hopes she might stroll back through his front door, but he listens carefully to the crime news.

“You hear there was a body found, and then they won’t say her name.” He pauses. “I’ve had some awful nights.”

Many parents of runaway kids thought the state had written a happy ending to their agonizing odysseys last summer when the “Becca Bill” became law.

Touted as a way to help parents better control their fleeing children, the law directs police to take runaways to their parents’ homes or to secure crisis centers.

With grand ceremony, Washington Gov. Mike Lowry signed it last July.

“When July finally came, I was just absolutely thrilled,” Kirkpatrick said. “Then, in fact, it made no difference.”

One problem: Spokane has no secure crisis center for runaways. The beds at the city’s only center are often full and runaways can leave whenever they want.

Kirkpatrick says the more he examines the runaway issue, the more he realizes parents are helpless and the state’s system just doesn’t work - especially in Spokane.

This fall, a Spokane police officer gave Megan a ride to a friend’s home in Browne’s Addition - instead of taking her to Kirkpatrick’s home, his ex-wife’s house or a crisis center, as the law requires.

Kirkpatrick also recently got a distressing call from Seattle police. They thought they had spotted Megan. But when he asked for specifics, Kirkpatrick was told Megan’s runaway report, provided by Spokane police, indicated she was 5-foot-7 and 140 pounds. She’s 5-foot-3 and 100 pounds.

Kirkpatrick told the City Council about his travails with his daughter, whom he has only seen fleetingly in the past year.

He offered to help raise cash to give the runaway law more local bite.

The response? “I was resoundingly ignored.”

Assistant Police Chief David Peffer says if he were Bob Kirkpatrick, he too would feel the system had failed. “He’s got a real sad situation. And my heart goes out to him.”

Officers did escort Megan across town and had other contacts with the girl while her father was searching for her, Peffer says. She would have been taken to one of her parents’ homes during those contacts, he explains, but officers didn’t know she was a runaway because a computer glitch erased her report for two months.

Peffer says the department does everything it can to help parents find and recover their children.

But the new runaway law - created after the 1993 slaying of a 13-year-old runaway prostitute named Rebecca “Misty” Hedman - came with no money for police to expand or improve its runaway work, he says.

In fact, the law came with no money at all.

Without the facilities and money to treat the addictions and other problems of street kids, Peffer says, it’s often pointless to return chronic runaways to their homes.

“Returning Megan Kirkpatrick to her parents is not the solution. You can’t keep her chained in the basement.”

Megan left home on Dec. 28, 1994, to go shopping in downtown Spokane. She didn’t come back. Three days later, her father found drugs in her room and a phone number. He dialed. Megan got on the line and asked him why he was “freaking out.”

She said she’d come home. She didn’t.

Kirkpatrick, a computer consultant, filed the runaway report with police and broadcast word on the Internet.

He went to a copy shop and made 850 copies of a picture of her - drunk and stoned at a party. He had Megan’s aunt post another 100 in Seattle.

In February, Seattle police found Megan and put her on a bus to Spokane. She disappeared two days later.

She turned 14 on the streets, then came home on a rainy March day, sick with bronchitis. She drank soup and slept for three days, then left again.

When Spokane police found her on July 14, they took her to a nearby fire station, where she was held until her mother picked her up. A half-hour after arriving at her mother’s home, Megan vanished.

In September, it was the Grant County police that found Megan. Kirkpatrick immediately arranged to send her away to an outdoor, therapeutic expedition group in southern Oregon.

“She was stunned,” he says, recalling their talk at a Denny’s Restaurant in Moses Lake when he explained where she was going. “She didn’t have anything to say. But she was very polite. She’s always been very polite.”

Three weeks later, Megan returned to Spokane, healthy and revived from her outing. She stood up and waved at a City Council meeting when her father pointed out his long-lost daughter to the city’s politicians.

While staying with her father, she gave an interview to the radio station KPBX about life on the streets.

The streets appealed to her because she was tired of school and fighting with her mother, she explained. She said money was not a problem. She could collect $40 to $60 in a few hours panhandling outside 7-Eleven. She spent the cash on drugs, mostly speed and heroin, she said. She laughed nervously, like a little girl.

Megan told her father the even grittier details about street life. She said she’d been robbed, pistol-whipped and raped several times.

“To me, it was a nightmare,” Kirkpatrick says. “To her, it was an adventure.”

A couple days later, in October, an older street friend apparently talked Megan into leaving again.

She left a note behind for her father and younger brother. “Dad and Aron, I love you guys both more than you know, but I’m not happy here. Whether or not you believe me, I’m sorry. Love, Megan.”

Kirkpatrick hasn’t seen her or heard from her since.

He’s had two people call and say they saw her in Seattle, based on the Internet photo. He called a Seattle cafe and talked to the manager. Sure, the man knew Megan. Nice girl. Sees her every now and then. He said he’d call the next time she walked in.

Kirkpatrick is a former court-appointed advocate charged with looking out for the best interests of Spokane children. His experience tells him Peffer’s right about one thing: If Megan makes it home again he’ll have to put her in a secure treatment home for troubled juveniles.

Kirkpatrick believes people fail to realize how common runaways are, and how powerless parents are to stop them.

“They can say, ‘up yours’ and go where they want to go, sleep where they want to sleep,” he laments.

A state report indicated as many as 300 children live on the streets of Spokane in the summertime.

“You don’t see them standing shoulder to shoulder,” Kirkpatrick says. “If you did, it would terrify people and something would get done.”

Peffer says the runaway numbers in Spokane are impossible to count. He also says many kids prefer the streets to the rules and discipline of school and home.

Back at Kirkpatrick’s home, his daughter’s picture pops up on the computer screen. He looks at her tough face. Next to her photograph is the Spokane Police Report Number: 95-087448.

Kirkpatrick wants Megan back. But even more, he wishes he knew his daughter was “all right” - in other words, alive.

“I’m not giving up,” he says, lighting his fifth consecutive cigarette. “Not now. Not ever.”

Kirkpatrick stopped a reporter who was about to leave his home. “In all this talk, I haven’t even mentioned that I happen to love my daughter a whole lot,” he says, looking away. “I think the world of her.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 color)

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ON THE NET The Internet address for Megan’s Home Page: http://tau-ceti.ior.com/megan

This sidebar appeared with the story: ON THE NET The Internet address for Megan’s Home Page: http://tau-ceti.ior.com/megan


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