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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Parents of runaway youth seeking gender-affirming or reproductive care wouldn’t be notified by shelter under bill approved in Washington Legislature

The Washington Capitol building.   (Rachel La Corte)
By Elena Perry The Spokesman-Review

Runaway youth seeking gender-affirming and reproductive care would be able to shelter without their parents knowing by a bill that passed the state House of Representatives last week.

The bill would add “seeking a protected health care service” to the list of “compelling reasons” why a licensed homeless shelter or host home wouldn’t contact a youth’s parents upon their arrival. Instead, the bill directs the shelter to contact the Department of Children, Youth and Families within 72 hours of their arrival.

Evidence of abuse or neglect are current examples of compelling reasons a shelter would reach out to the department instead of parents.

The department would then “make a good faith attempt” to contact the youth’s parents and offer conflict-resolution services, leading to reunification. The department would also be required to connect the youth to behavioral health services, per an amendment added on the House floor.

Gender-affirming care is defined under Washington law as a treatment or service that affirms an individual’s gender identity, including hormone treatment, facial feminization or masculinization surgeries, voice and genital modification and mental health support.

While there is no law impeding a practitioner’s ability to prescribe gender-affirming care based on a patient’s age, many health care providers have their own policies. Seattle Children’s Hospital, for example, has a policy stating patients must be 18 or older before any genital surgeries.

The bill intends to protect youth seeking this care, as well as reproductive health care, who may not have supportive families.

Proponents of the bill said without this protection in place, homeless transgender youth may not seek help at licensed homeless shelters, leaving them unhoused and vulnerable to harm.

“We know these conditions are incredibly dangerous for young people,” bill sponsor Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, said. “We also know that young people who aren’t able to access gender-affirming care are at significant risk of a whole host of health care challenges, including but not limited to self-harm and suicide.”

Opponents said it usurps the rights of a parent to know their child’s whereabouts. They fear that a disagreement would lead to a child running away from home and parents not knowing where their child is.

“Not every situation that a child leaves from is a bad situation or an abusive home. It might just be a hot moment,” Rep. Suzanne Schmidt, R-Spokane Valley, said.

During floor debate, Schmidt talked about a time when her son left her home unexpectedly after an argument without his wallet or a pair of shoes. She was worried about his whereabouts and safety, a position she said parents of runaways would be put in by the bill’s passage.

“For those loving mothers and fathers that are worried sick, going out of their mind with fear,” Schmidt said. “They’re calling the police, they’re calling every single friend of their child and their friends’ parents. Those parents aren’t going to be notified.”

Another amendment introduced on the House floor directs the state to collect data on homeless youth. There’s no comprehensive survey of homeless or unsheltered transgender youth, lawmakers said.

Nationwide, state governments are debating legislation surrounding gender-affirming care. An Idaho proposal, signed into law earlier this month, criminalizes doctors providing this care to minors. At least 12 other states are considering similar restrictions.

The Washington bill passed the House 57-39 with two Representatives excused. The House adopted amendments, so it requires an OK from the president of the Senate before it heads to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk.

While he said he hasn’t been fully briefed on the bill yet, Inslee supports the objective of the bill.

“We believe it is better to have a young person in a shelter with some adult supervision than having them out on the streets, maybe being sexually trafficked, maybe exposed to drug use,” Inslee said. “We think it’s better to have them in some controlled environment.”