Town Takes On Runaway Problem Post Falls Outlaws Running Away; Critics Fear More Crowded Courts
In three years, Joani Maine’s teenage son ran away at least 15 times.
The Post Falls single mother was miserable. She could do little more than feel angry and hurt and fret about her son’s safety.
The police were equally at a loss. They picked up the boy and returned him home only to have him flee again through his bedroom window.
“I just went through so much awful stuff,” Maine said. “The Police Department helped all they could, but their hands were tied, too.”
Police officers and parents of runaways hope that a new Post Falls ordinance will put a crimp in their runaway problem. The city recently became the first in North Idaho to outlaw running away from home and skipping school.
Authorities now have the option to send first- and second-time offenders through probation, community service or counseling. Habitual offenders face time in the juvenile detention center.
“It gives parents and police one more tool to work with,” said Susan Weeks, the Post Falls prosecutor who drafted the ordinance.
Gary Stamper, whose daughter has run away numerous times, agrees. “I think it’s a great idea,” he said. “I would like to see each one of the communities in our county follow the lead of Post Falls.”
But skeptics are concerned the law doesn’t pluck out the root of the problem and instead will add to an overburdened court system.
Locking up runaways “is really a short-term fix to deal with the kids on the street,” said Loren Warboys, managing director of the national Youth Law Center. “The kids who continue to run away, you just wind up locking them up longer and longer without any particular gain.”
In the past two years, the Post Falls Police Department has taken 118 runaway reports. Sgt. Pete Marion has seen one girl run away as many as seven times in five months.
“The frustration was that the daughter runs away, we find her, we bring her home, she runs away, we bring her home, she runs away,” Marion said. “It’s a vicious cycle.”
Maine has been trapped in that cycle since her son turned 15.
She once found him hanging out with prostitutes in Spokane. She feared he too would pawn himself on the streets.
When all efforts failed to keep him at home she threatened to call police. The boy merely scoffed at the idea.
“You’re just so afraid your child is going to be hurt by his own actions,” Maine said. “I was hurt that he ran away and was afraid for him. I was wondering ‘When is it going to end?”’ Barry Black, Kootenai County deputy prosecutor, handles the majority of the county’s juvenile cases. He believes the new ordinance will not only cut down on runaways but will also help prevent youth crime and save police time.
Judge Eugene Marano said juvenile crime often goes hand in hand with running away.
“They’re just roaming the streets at night. I’ve seen burglaries, grand thefts and sex offenses,” he said. “Malicious injury to property is a very common one with kids that have run away.”
“The ordinance is a preventative measure,” Black said. “We are going to stop some of these kids before they become criminals.”
But the Post Falls ordinance comes too late to help Maine’s son. Now 18-years-old, he has been booked into the Kootenai County Jail on a charge of lewd conduct.
Last year, Washington Gov. Mike Lowry signed into law the “Becca Bill,” named for a Tacoma runaway-turned-prostitute killed in a Spokane motel.
It allows Washington parents to place runaways in drug, alcohol or mental health treatment. But the Washington law stopped short of the Post Falls’ ordinance. Lowry vetoed a part of the bill that would have allowed chronic runaways to spend up to six months in detention.
In Post Falls, children who run away three or more times in a month face up to 90 days in the detention center.
“There has to be a certain accountability and punishment,” Black said.
He and Stamper want an ordinance similar to Post Falls’ for the rest of the county. They tried in the past and failed to get support from county commissioners.
“The kids (outside of Post Falls) know right now that there is nothing that can happen to them if they run away and they’ve told me that,” Black said. “They’re not in fear of any repercussions.”
Kootenai County Sheriff’s Capt. Ben Wolfinger is opposed to a county-wide law.
“They want us out there catching crooks, then they want us to go out and deal with things a parent should be dealing with,” Wolfinger said. “Is that the proper use of a deputy? Are we treating the symptom or are we treating the problem?”
Although Black contends the ordinance would cut down on juvenile crime, Wolfinger believes a county-wide runaway law would overload the justice system.
“They talk about overworked courts and overworked prosecutors and then they want to add 300 or 400 more cases?” Wolfinger said.
Black believes the law will help police identify mistreated kids and put them in a safe homes. But critics argue that it would instead punish children by forcing them to stay with abusive parents.
“If they’re running away, there is some serious problem at home,” Warboys said, pointing out that making the kids criminals may send them running away farther. “Locking these kids up for three or four days and sending them back to the home doesn’t address that problem.”
Stamper, head of the Kootenai County Youth Task Force, disagreed.
His daughter ran away seven times in just three months last year. Authorities in Arizona finally caught up to her and held her in a detention center for several days.
“That’s what finally turned her around. It was like ‘Welcome to hell, kid.”’ Stamper said his daughter hasn’t run away since.
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