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Bill On Runaways Has Proper Balance

Mon., May 15, 1995

Parents of troubled kids can breathe a little easier now.

Gov. Mike Lowry gave parents some desperately needed help last week when he signed into law a bill authorizing the state to hold runaways for a time without court approval.

Before, kids could bolt whenever they felt like it and parents had no real authority to bring them back home. Running away wasn’t illegal and some kids took advantage of Washington’s lax laws to escape strict households. Others were escaping abuse or neglect, but they, too, were free to wander without guidance or help.

It took the murder of 13-year-old runaway Rebecca Hedman to draw attention to the outrage. She had left her home in Tacoma several times, heading for the streets. She eventually became a prostitute in Spokane and died here.

Legislators finally heard the frustration of parents statewide through Rebecca’s tragic death and the persistence of her parents, who fought to keep other children from following the same path.

Now, runaways can be kept by authorities for up to five days while social workers and parents decide if the child should go home, be placed in foster care or admitted to a long-term treatment center. The law also allows parents to commit their child to treatment involuntarily, which wasn’t possible before.

Still, some say it isn’t enough. Lowry drew the wrath of a handful of parents at the signing ceremony because he vetoed a portion of the bill that would have allowed kids to be held for up to six months. Contrary to the complaints, it was a wise move. Attorney General Christine Gregoire advised the provision would have led to lawsuits and jeopardized millions of dollars in federal money.

It would have been costly in other ways, too. State juvenile facilities are jam packed, as we know in Spokane. Detaining runaways for half a year would be expensive and do little to solve the problems that prompted the flight in the first place.

The law is a good first step. It places the responsibility on the family, where it belongs, while providing necessary support from the state.

But enacting this new law was only half the battle. The real test of state support comes in the budget legislators now are negotiating. About $10 million is needed for mental health and substance abuse treatment, residential crisis facilities and an anti-truancy program. Prevention programs and a strong education system would make a world of difference in keeping families from getting to the crisis point in the first place.

The Becca Bill, as it’s called, will do little for families and children who need help without the money to implement it. That’s the next step.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Anne Windishar/For the editorial board

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