A story sticks in Bonnie Bush’s head, reminding her why she tries so hard to keep kids who skip school out of Spokane County’s juvenile detention center.
A girl, locked up for cutting school, found a note slipped under the door of her cell – it was from gang members recruiting her.
The girl gave the note to the staff, but the story illustrates for the county’s juvenile court services director the importance of keeping truants and other troubled kids away from juvenile offenders.
“Why would I want to be putting a truant in with someone charged with murder or rape?” Bush asks. “That brought to my attention – look what happens with these kids. It heightened our awareness.”
The juvenile court just landed a $125,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to explore alternatives in dealing with truants or kids in danger of dropping out of school. The grant is part of the foundation’s Models for Change program, which seeks common-sense reform within juvenile justice systems. Four states – Washington, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Illinois – were chosen to receive funding under the program. Five Washington counties – Pierce, Benton, Clark, Franklin and King – also received funds.
Spokane County has been struggling to control truancy for years, Bush said. Statewide, truancy numbers have skyrocketed since the “Becca bill” took effect in 1995, requiring school districts to engage the court system after 10 unexcused absences. The bill was named for Rebecca Hedman, a Tacoma runaway slain in 1993 while working as a prostitute in Spokane.
The Becca bill calls for juveniles who have not committed crimes to be referred to the court system if they are truant; if they’ve been absent from home for extended periods without parental consent; if they have substance abuse problems; if they need services including food, shelter, health care, clothing or education; or if their parents are unable to maintain a stable home environment. Some of these children are moved to more stable environments as a result of court action.
In 1994, only 14 of these youths, called “status offenders,” were referred to Spokane County’s juvenile court system. By 2006, those stricter reporting guidelines had caused that number to jump to 2,300, about 90 percent of them for truancy.
The county has developed alternatives to locking up truants, such as a Saturday school, community service programs and work with mental health professionals. However, the number of truancy petitions has continued to rise. In 2006, 2,081 were filed, up 18 percent from the previous year and 138 percent from 2000.
Bush emphasizes that the juvenile detention center has only 39 cells. In addition, she said incarcerating a child for a day costs $130 – $47,000 per year – due to the extensive services the county is required to provide, including schooling, and mental and physical health services. “You can’t keep them locked up,” Bush said. “It will start impacting them psychologically.”
Though most detained juveniles respond well to the discipline, regular meals, school and other programs in the detention center, it’s the county’s goal to prevent them from landing there and to minimize the time they spend there. In 2004, the average length of stay was seven days, which dropped to 5.1 days in 2006.
Once in detention, kids get used to it, said Superior Court Commissioner Royce Moe, who oversees juvenile court on six-month rotations with other court commissioners. It’s preferable, Moe said, that they learn to adjust to their home environment.
“I don’t like sending a 13-year-old girl back there,” Moe said, explaining that most of the inmates are “pretty hardcore kids that need to be confined.”
“I don’t like to have any at-risk youth and truancy kids exposed to that.”
In court, Moe listens carefully and talks to each youth before him. In an interview later, Moe says he wishes he had a half-hour with each one, instead of 15 minutes. He tells the kids they need to watch less television, sleep more, eat better, exercise more and join school activities. In the past decade, Bush said, parents have become accustomed to using the court system and the threat of jail as a hammer to control children.
“This is a kid they’ve been breaking for eight, 10 or 15 years and they want us to fix them by locking them up,” Moe said. “A little bit of parent education goes a long way.”
Spokane County has used the MacArthur grant, in part, to hire Yvonne Lopez-Morton as coordinator for the Models for Change program. Working with partners Spokane Public Schools and the West Valley School District, along with law enforcement, civic organizations, social service providers and others, the county will come up with an action plan by November.
This is a great time for Spokane to focus on this issue, said Lopez-Morton, who also works with Spokane Public Schools on the Safe Schools/Healthy Students initiative. After the community’s “Our Kids, Our Business” campaign, Lopez-Morton said, “all of a sudden, people really care about youth. It’s really on peoples’ minds at a level I’ve never seen before in this community.”
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