Lawmakers are moving to revamp state laws that some parents say make it nearly impossible to get their runaway children off the streets and back home or into treatment.
The current law, enacted in 1977, allows police to pick up runaways and take them to crisis shelters if they don’t want to return home. But kids can leave the centers at any time, because running away is not a crime.
The Senate Corrections and Human Services Committee held a public hearing Thursday on two bills that would allow authorities to detain runaways, while parents try to get them into treatment or counseling.
A bill sponsored by Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, would require runaways who can’t be taken home to be held in a secure residential crisis center for at least three days.
Another bill, proposed by the Governor’s Council on Families, Youth and Justice, would consider some chronic runaways a danger to themselves or others, allowing them to be detained for up to five days.
An even stricter bill is due for a public hearing next week.
The so-called “Becca bill,” sponsored by Rep. Mike Carrell, R-Tacoma, is named after Rebecca Hedman, a 13-yearold runaway beaten to death in Spokane in 1993 while she worked as a prostitute.
Carrell’s bill would require police to take runaways to a secure crisis center if they can not go home. A court hearing would be held within 24 hours to determine whether the child should be committed to a drug treatment program.
Two-time runaways could face suspension of their driver’s license for 90 days and be required to perform 100 hours of community service. Threetime runaways could be held in juvenile detention for up to a year.
Carrell said the intent is not to punish runaways, but to “get their attention.”
“I don’t see it as particularly punitive,” he said. “What we’re doing now is punitive. Having kids being raped and murdered and doing crack is punitive.”
Parents of troubled teens agree the current system needs fixing.
Choking back tears, Kristi Vaneslow of Bellingham told legislators Thursday about her struggle to reclaim her daughter from the streets, drugs, and mental illness.
“My daughter had no history of behavioral problems, and at the age of 13, she basically flipped out,” Vaneslow said.
Her daughter ran away, started abusing drugs and alcohol and became sexually active. Vaneslow said she called police, social workers and even legislators, but they all told her there was nothing she could do unless her daughter wanted help.
Finally, Vaneslow said, she and her husband had to tie their daughter up as she spit and kicked at them and drive her to a treatment center out of state.
Counselors there advised Vaneslow not to take her daughter back to Washington. “I was repeatedly told that Washington state was the worst state in the union in terms of parental rights.”
At least Vaneslow’s daughter is alive.
Dennis Hedman’s daughter, Becca, ran away from their Tacoma home in 1992 at age 12. She once returned after a 47-day absence with cigarette burns on her body, a crack cocaine habit and two sexuallytransmitted diseases, he said.
Finally, Becca agreed to go to a drug treatment center in Spokane. But when she left the center, her parents were not even notified.
On Oct. 13, 1993, she was picked up on a street corner by a man who sexually abused her, then beat her to death and dumped her body over a bluff near the Spokane River.
Her death led to the current push to give parents more power to intervene in their children’s lives.
Some at Thursday’s hearing warned legislators that many teens run away because they are abused at home. They worried that some of the proposed laws would violate the children’s rights.
“Of course, no 13-year-old child should be living on the streets,” said Jose Pena, director of United Way of Spokane County. “However, we do not believe that child should be locked up.”
He said running away is a “cry for help” and legislators should consider supplying more money for existing drug and alcohol treatment centers.