Does U.S. approach to truants, runaways do more harm than good?
Looking back, it seems as if Rebecca Hedman never had a chance.
Sexually abused as a toddler by her birth mother, she was adopted by foster parents. At 5 she was again sexually abused, this time by an adopted older brother. The boy was sent elsewhere, and the family tried to heal. But by 12 she was threatening to run away form her Tacoma, Wash., home.
Sent to a group home to sort things out, she came under the influence of older, more seriously troubled girls. She discovered crack cocaine, then prostitution to pay for it. She came home briefly, and her parents sent her to a drug treatment facility, from which she ran away from five times. In 1993, living on the streets, she was horrifically murdered by a prostitution client.
Becca was 13.
Like many parents processing tragedy, the Hedmans struggled over what might have been done, and what might yet be done for future Beccas. They thought they found an answer in legislation designed to make it easier to get kids off the streets, to lock kids up, at least long enough to get a grip on things. They called it Becca’s Bill.
It became law in Washington state 1995, empowering parents and courts and schools to at least temporarily jail “status offenders,” minors who commit “offenses” that would not be illegal for an adult: truancy, curfew violations, running away, alcohol use, or simply being “ungovernable.”
Under the Becca Bill, parents are empowered to request that youths be locked up, and schools can be required to jump into the juvenile justice system to handle truancy after 10 unexcused absences in a school year. Kids end up doing time for missing school.
Washington is hardly alone. The most recent data available, from 2010, shows that courts processed 137,000 status offenses nationwide, and of these, 10,000 kids spent time in a detention facility.
But 20 years down the road, many who work closely with troubled youth think the Becca Bill may be doing more harm than good.
Cracking down on kids to keep them from hurting themselves may seem like the lesser of evils, but a growing chorus of critics argues that putting noncriminal youths into the juvenile justice system simply breeds more trouble. In 1995 the Becca Bill was seen by many as an answer. Today, it is widely viewed as part of the problem. Rebecca’s own downward slide, critics note, sharply accelerated when she was comingled with kids who had far more serious problems.
Is the solution for future Beccas to get kids off the streets, no matter how? Or does getting them off the streets with the wrong tools just make things worse?
Many experts now argue the latter, and a concerted push is now underway to foster alternatives to locking up kids. Two weeks ago, the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, the national organization that coordinates juvenile policy among state governments, released new “National Standards for the Care of Youth Charges with Status Offenses.” And in a coordinated move last week, the Vera Institute of Justice — one of the nation’s leading criminal justice think tanks — launched its Status Offense Reform Center, a clearinghouse of resources and education resources for changing policies and procedures.
Citing significant progress in Louisiana, New York, Connecticut, Florida, and even Washington state itself, Annie Salsich, executive director of the Vera’s Center on Youth Justice, is optimistic.
“It doesn’t have to be like this,” Salsich says.
Zigs and zags
The handling of status offenders has zigzagged over the years. For much of the 20th century, courts treated these youths much as they did juvenile delinquents who committed actual crimes, mingling in the same legal system and detaining in the same facilities.
But in 1974 the federal government pushed back. A federal commission had found that more than half of juveniles locked in secure detention were status offenders who had committed no crimes. Conditions in these facilities were poor, the report said, and many kids came in with minor issues and were dragged down by their new associates, much like Rebecca Hedman was.
Congress responded with the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, which tied federal funds to states ensuring “that juveniles who are charged with or who have committed offenses that would not be criminal if committed by an adult shall not be placed in secure detention facilities or secure correctional facilities.”
But the paucity of alternatives confounded parents and courts, and an end run quickly emerged. A judge would order the problem youth to remain in a treatment center or group home. When the youth violated that ruling, he or she was held in contempt of court, and the court could lock them up. In 1980 this judicial loophole allowing courts to lock kids up — now known as the “Valid Court Order exception” — was formalized by Congress.
More harm than good?
And while many jurisdictions continued to follow the spirit of the 1974 law, the Valid Court Order exception came into widespread use. About half of U.S. states now allow the exception, which is employed roughly 12,000 times a year, according to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency.
Those numbers may seem small, but to the kids involved the implications loom large.
“Sometimes judges feel they need to lock up status offenders for fear of where they will go and what they will do,” said Lisa Pilnik, a consultant for the Coalition for Juvenile Justice who played a major role in drafting the new national standards. “But if you look at the detention facilities, they are being locked up with youth who have committed much more serious offenses.”
There is a misperception that kids who are under the court’s jurisdiction are safe, Pilnik said, but the data says otherwise.
“Almost 20 percent of detained status offenders and other non-offenders (e.g., youth involved with the child welfare system) are placed in living quarters with youth who have committed murder or manslaughter and 25 percent are placed in units with felony sex offenders,” reads the Coalition for Juvenile Justice white paper released this month.
“Why in the world would we lock up kids for these kinds of offenses when we know that if you comingle these kids with high risk kids, it makes things worse?” asked Shawn Marsh, chief program officer for Juvenile Law at the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Justices. “But we still have judges today who say, ‘I just have to teach them a lesson.’ "
“As it stands now, the law basically says, ‘We don’t think it is a good idea to lock up status offenders,’” Marsh said. “We need it to come out and say, ‘you will not lock up status offenders.’ ”
The downside of mingling non-offending youths with dangerous cohorts is not controversial, Pilnik said.
“They say, ‘If you are telling me that they shouldn’t be in court, are you telling me then that I can’t do anything?’ ” Salsich said. But there are alternatives. Localities in Florida, Louisiana and New York have all implemented immediate crisis response, according to Salsich.
“We have found that a quick response, a triage response, is really important,” Salsich said. Unlike the legal system, which can take three weeks to engage a court referral — weeks that can literally be a lifetime for a teen in crisis — community responses can be mobilized within hours.
Aren’t such intensive interventions expensive?
“Court is incredibly expensive,” Salsich answers, “and detention and out of home placement is astronomically expensive.” Florida, the nation’s status-offense-innovation leader, now operates a network of community and nonprofit agencies that serve troubled teens in real time — from intake screenings to interventions and follow-up reviews.
The numbers seem to agree. In addition to keeping kids off the streets and away from negative peer influences in lock ups, Florida’s investment saves money. The state estimates that in 2011, it saved $160 million in out-of-home placement costs.