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Washington cuts funding for runaway teen shelters

Tue., Jan. 27, 2009, 8:07 a.m.

OLYMPIA — The budget ax is falling on a Washington state service that houses runaway teens while trying to reunite them with families or foster parents.

The Department of Social and Health Services plans to close Secure Crisis Residential Centers by Feb. 15 in Everett, Bremerton, Port Angeles, Wenatchee and Yakima. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports centers in Seattle, Vancouver, Kennewick and Spokane will close June 30.

In addition, the Spruce Street center in Seattle, which is the largest center and the only one in King County, has lost funding for three of its 15 beds.

Eliminating the nine centers, which have a total of about 60 beds and serve about 3,000 teens a year, would save $9.4 million in the 2009-2011 budget. It’s the largest single proposed cut in Children’s Administration, part of DSHS.

The centers were created in 2000 as part of the “Becca Bill,” which allows the state to temporarily hold runaways.

“If funding was cut, these kids would remain on the street,” said Maggie Faust, director of Spruce Street, which has served 5,971 youths since opening in 2000. “As a result, we’d see more kids dying and committing crimes to get their basic needs met.”

Of those housed at Spruce Street last year, 85 percent had drug or alcohol problems and 10 percent were involved in prostitution, Faust said.

Youths at the centers get food, clothing, mental health services, safe sex guidance and assistance reconnecting with their families.

Until Spruce Street opened, Seattle police usually took runaways and street youths to the King County Juvenile Detention Center.

Those youths “just don’t rise to the level of the hardened criminal,” said Detective Harry James, a veteran of the vice unit. “They needed guidance. They didn’t need to be thrown in with a guy who just knifed somebody on the street.”

The centers were considered expendable in a tight budget climate for several reasons, said Glenn Kuper, spokesman for the state Office of Financial Management. The program does not receive federal matching dollars and Kuper said there are some good alternatives available.

While the loss of the centers would be “unfortunate,” said Randy Hart, interim assistant secretary of Children’s Administration, “these are very difficult times and tough decisions have to be made.”

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