Seattle Times: Sometimes detention is the only choice to keep a child safe
Special to The Times
While detention for troubled youth is never a judge’s first choice, it can save a child’s life.
In its editorial, “Help, don’t jail, foster runaways,” The Seattle Times editorial board urges the adoption of Senate Bill 5290, which eliminates detention as a way to enforce valid court orders for children who are considered At Risk Youth, truants or Children in Need of Services.
The 193 judges who make up the Superior Court Judges’ Association are on the front lines of deciding how to help these children in crisis. Our judges recognize that detaining children who have not committed a crime should be a last resort. But sometimes, when faced with the choice of either releasing a child back to their rapists, traffickers and abductors, or keeping that child in custody, detention is the only reasonable choice. Because the bill eliminates judges’ statutory ability to enforce their orders, we oppose it.
One of the bedrocks of judicial authority is a judge’s ability to enforce court orders.
This long-standing statute allowing for a youth’s short-term detention for violating a court order stems from a tragic story involving a young girl named Rebecca (Becca) Hedman. At a very early age, the state removed Becca from her biological parents’ care because of years of parental neglect and physical abuse. The Hedman family adopted Becca and tried to give her a better life. At around 12 years old, Becca began skipping school, using drugs and running away from home. Her parents sought drug treatment for her, but Becca would run from the facilities back to the streets. At 13, she was raped and trafficked for drugs and money.
In 1995, a man preying on Becca for sex broke her skull with a baseball bat, killing her. According to a Spokesman Review article at the time, “by giving children over 12 the right to make their own decisions, state law restricted (Becca’s) parents’ efforts to bring her home.”
Washington’s Legislature acted after Becca’s death and passed the BECCA Bill. That law allows parents and guardians to petition a court for help with their kids who are usually in acute need of services, supervision or both. Judges who deal with these heartbreaking cases can order kids to go to school, or into drug and alcohol treatment or counseling. After exhausting every other option, judges can use detention to enforce their orders to compel the child to stay in school, to go to their therapist or to monitor whether they are using drugs.
Detention of these juveniles is extremely rare and always short. In 2015, there were 640 kids statewide detained by a court for violating a BECCA order. The average length of stay was 1.5 days.
Most of the youth who are subject to the BECCA law are in crisis. The Superior Court Judges’ Association urges the Legislature to fund secure alternatives to juvenile detention, such as HOPE beds (a short-term placement option) and secure Crisis Residential Centers. These are better options than juvenile detention for judges when deciding what to do with a youth who will not comply with a court’s order. The residential centers can provide youth with food, shelter, counseling, other service referrals and potentially family reunification. Today, however, there are only two such centers in the entire state.
Rather than eliminate a court’s statutory authority to enforce its orders through detention, the Legislature can and should provide courts with guidelines on how and when detention should be used. The Superior Court Judges’ Association has proposed to the bill’s sponsor realistic alternatives that do just this.
Simply saying “no detention” leaves judges to develop their own sanctions without input from the Legislature and raises the possibility of very different results for these cases statewide.
To put it plainly, courts must be able to enforce their orders. This includes, as a last resort, the use of detention. If a court cannot enforce its order, it is not an order — it is merely a suggestion from someone wearing a robe. As most parents and teachers know, kids typically will not follow through when there are no consequences. While detention for these troubled youth is never a judge’s first choice, it can save a child’s life.
Blaine Gibson is a Yakima County Superior Court judge and president of the Superior Court Judges' Association.