Governor Mike Lowry signed a bill into law Wednesday intended to help parents control chronic runaways. But some parents at the signing ceremony said he cut the meat out of the bill.
They wept and shouted in anger, even taking the governor on face-toface.
The Becca bill is named for 13-year old Rebecca Hedman, a Tacoma runaway murdered in a Spokane motel room.
As Lowry put pen to paper to sign the bill, a mother in the audience sneered “what a joke” loud enough for all to hear.
“This is gratuitous,” said Becky Winner of Sumner, the mother of a 16-year-old runway. “All it does is save his face. He’s signed this bill supposedly to help children and he has gutted it.”
Dan Beeler of Maltby, whose 15-year-old son was found dead this week in Everett, walked up to Lowry, looked him in the eye and said, “My son’s funeral is tomorrow. You’re invited.”
Beeler said the bill won’t help troubled families because Lowry vetoed a section that allowed chronic runaways to be locked up for as long as six months.
Attorney General Christine Gregoire warned the provision would have provoked a federal lawsuit and jeopardized millions of dollars in federal money.
That’s because the state would have criminalized runaways instead of helping them, Gregoire said. “Our intent was not to penalize but to help, and this bill does that,” she said.
Instead of locking children up for six months, “under this bill you can place kids involuntarily for drug, alcohol, or mental health treatment that has no time limitation on it.”
The bill targets children most in need of help, Gregoire said. “We have to remember the chronic runaways this bill is all about are not perfectly healthy kids. Something is driving them to run.”
The bill also requires schools to keep better track of truants, and directs courts to accept parents’ petitions for help with runaway children more quickly.
Lowry grew vexed as some parents lectured him after the bill-signing and threatened to vote him out of office if sterner measures aren’t adopted.
“Go right ahead,” Lowry said as one exasperated mother stalked away after dressing him down. “I’ll see what it’s like to work 70 hours a week instead of 90.”
The signing ceremony was held on the back lawn of a juvenile rehabilitation center in Tacoma, where Becca Hedman once lived.
“It was the Hedman family with their courage and determination that brought this issue to a head. Out of her tragedy comes this solution,” said Rep. Brian Ebersole, D-Tacoma.
“It’s going to save lives,” said Dennis Hedman of Tacoma, Becca’s father.
“What we hope this law will do is provide safety for the children and give parents a chance to keep the family together,” he said.
Hedman said the core of the legislation, giving parents and authorities more control over runaways, remains intact.
The 16-month process of writing the bill began with Hedman and his wife, Darlene, huddling over the kitchen table with members of the Runaway Alliance.
They brainstormed a four-page draft of the legislation, then joined forces with King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng to hold a series of town hall meetings.
Hedman testified four times before committees in Olympia.
“I just started speaking from my heart,” he said.
Since his runaway daughter was killed, the same fate has befallen four other Washington teens, he said.
Becca became “Misty,” a cracksmoking Spokane prostitute.
She should have been in seventh grade, but she was last seen alive on a downtown street corner, where she was picked up by a man and taken to his motel room. There she was robbed and clubbed to death with a baseball bat, police say.
Jury selection in accused killer John Medlock’s trial was scheduled to begin today in Spokane County Superior Court.
Lowry and others said that to truly help runaways like Becca, the state budget must include enough money to provide treatment and intervention programs to prevent kids from going astray and bring families back together when they do.
Otherwise, the bill is “just an empty promise,” Lowry said.
So far, budget conferees have agreed to provide only a fraction of the bill’s $31 million price tag.
The budget under negotiation includes about $2 million for mental health and substance abuse treatment; $4.5 million for crisis residential facilities; and $3 million to combat truancy.
Rep. Mike Carrell, R-Tacoma, the bill’s prime House sponsor, said he was so disappointed by Lowry’s partial veto that he will push for an override, which requires a two-thirds vote of both houses.
But Senate Majority Leader Marcus Gaspard, D-Tacoma, saw no need for that, saying, “the governor had to veto those sections to save the bill.”
xxxx THE BECCA BILL Runaways may be held for up to five days without court approval. During that time, social service workers and parents are to decide if the child should be taken home, placed in foster care or admitted to a long-term treatment facility. The bill allows parents of kids 17 and younger to commit them for mental, alcohol or drug treatment. Authorities have had little power to hold children over 13 for more than 24 hours. It also requires schools to file truancy petitions with the courts for repeat offenders and monitor truancy more closely. Such petitions have been discretionary. Lowry vetoed a portion of the bill that would have allowed kids to be held for up to six months, as well as a provision to suspend the driver’s license of chronic runaways. -Lynda Mapes
The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Lynda V. Mapes Staff writer Staff writer Bill Miller contributed to this report.