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Families will not have to pay for incarcerated youth any longer, following agency reform and new law

Parents will no longer have to foot the bill if their teen is sentenced to juvenile rehabilitation in Washington.

The Washington Legislature voted to end this practice – called parent pay – and Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill this week. Furthermore, all such debts owed by families will be canceled.

There were 240 families that owed the state a total of $1.147 million for parent pay, according to data from the Department of Children, Youth and Families.

Families were billed based on their income level and the child’s duration of stay in custody by the Department of Social and Health Services Office of Financial Recovery. The median owed was $537.

Parent pay has been state law since the 1970s when other “tough on crime” legislation and other restrictive criminal justice measures were enacted. When the Washington Legislature passed the Youth Equality and Reintegration Act in 2015, most non-restitution legal and financial obligations for youth charged with crimes were eliminated.

Parent pay remained, however, and this year, the Department of Children, Youth and Families initiated the change in state law.

“So many practices like this are rooted in historically racist and ‘punishable’ eras, and we just know better about what families need,” Allison Krutsinger, director of government affairs at DCYF, said. “(The department) is dedicated to analyzing history and making changes to the work we do and this fell right into that category.”

The department had the support of two advocacy organizations to get the law changed, including the Center for Children and Youth Justice.

“My view has been that we’ve got to address not just the short-term issues but the long-term systemic issues at the same time,” Rachel Sottile, president of the center, said. “(Eliminating) parent pay is the step to do that.”

Incarcerated youth in Washington state are disproportionately Black, Hispanic, Native American or Pacific Islanders.

A mid-2021 report on the number of youth in Juvenile Rehabilitation shows that 68% of youth in a facility are not white, nearly an inverse of the statewide population. The majority are males.

Krutsinger said youth in juvenile rehabilitation are typically from lower-income families.

The practice of parent pay would sometimes come as an added shock to families already reeling from the fact that their child had been sentenced to a facility by a county juvenile court.

Sottile described one family as being shocked and in awe when a bill for thousands of dollars showed up after their child was sent away. No one had told them.

Other families are forced to make choices: go into debt with the state or pay for rent, food or other necessities.

“It’s punishing the poor and putting a price tag on justice and the constitutional right to freedom,” Sottile said.

The department recognized that this practice was not only antiquated but also did not line up with its equity efforts.

“DCYF has been working to eliminate practices that are harmful to children and their families, and particularly those practices that are financially stupid,” DCYF Secretary Ross Hunter said in a news release.

Technically, parent pay was a line-item in the department’s budget, but it would never materialize to what it should have because families would not pay.

Each year, parent payment was budgeted at $1.8 million of the department’s biennium budget, but only a quarter of those funds were being collected.

This session, the Legislature also appropriated the necessary funding to the department to cover the budget hole left now that parent pay is eliminated.

House Bill 2050 eliminated parent pay at both the state and county levels, so families should not incur bills or charges for their child or teen being locked up in a county jail or when they go into juvenile rehabilitation.

Looking ahead, Sottile said she will be pushing for the repeal of all legal and financial obligations that come from sending youth and teens into the juvenile justice system. These include a DNA collection fee, criminal victims assessment penalty and restitution that youth and families may still have to pay, despite the 2015 changes in Washington state law.

To Sottile and her organization, imposing fines and fees on families that further entrench them in the criminal justice system is not a solution.

“Any time you put money in the formula for your constitutional right to freedom, you will have inequities,” she said.

Even the department is working on further changes to the way it charges families for services. Krutsinger said that a similar pay structure is in place for children whose parents lose custody of them. That policy, while more complicated to change, is one that the department is working to fix as well, especially as it is one that keeps families in poverty.

DCYF is a relatively new state agency in Washington, created in 2017 to overhaul the state’s foster care system and ideally, create better outcomes for families. Children in Juvenile Rehabilitation are under the care of the department.

Advocating for the end of parent pay is emblematic of the department’s continued efforts to make changes in the statewide system of care for children, officials said.

“You can expect to see the department make bold changes,” Krutsinger said.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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