May 2015 Bar Bulletin
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Chief O'Toole Gets Schooled on Youth Services


A few days ago, I found myself sitting across from Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole explaining some of the facts of life in the state with the most regressive tax system in the country and a concomitant dearth of social services. As a New Englander myself, I knew that when she accepted the call to serve in Washington she would have had no idea what she would encounter. Her eyebrows told me that this expectation was on target.

"Let me give you the example of teen foster children," I began. The chief had just finished telling me about the multi-disciplinary teams that fanned out across Boston connecting high-risk youth and families to whatever social service they might need.

"Youth in foster care run away at a very high rate, so high that a judge in Whatcom County presiding over a class action has ordered the Department of Social and Health Services to reduce the number of runaways by creating more appropriate placements for them. So far all they have been able to do is hire a team to locate runaways and bring them to detention on arrest warrants."

Her eyebrows raised a notch. The words "foster children," "detention" and "arrest warrant" really should not be strung together. "And then the next morning the youth goes to court and the Department asks the commissioner to place the foster child in detention for seven days because they are in contempt of the placement order," I continued. The eyebrows rose a little bit more.

"Most of the time the Department does not have an appropriate placement for the youth, so if the commissioner orders them released because detention is not a placement, then they might spend hours waiting at a DSHS office for whatever is the next available home, or they might be placed at a crisis residential center known as Spruce Street that youth report is 'just like a jail.' Then they run away again. And the cycle repeats." It did not seem her eyebrows could go any higher.

Looking at what has become routine in our dependency and Becca courts through Chief O'Toole's eyes, I was reminded of just how shocking it is. Many of the new Children and Family Justice Center's critics urge that detention should never be used for status offenders (also known as "Becca" youth, referring to the law's namesake), let alone dependent (abused and neglected) children. When I ran this notion by the commissioners who see these young people every day, they wished it were possible to avoid detention for these youth who have committed no crimes, but the failure to provide services and appropriate placements to the youth have driven them to ever-riskier behaviors while they are on the run.

We are not talking about kids who talk back to their parents or fail to make their beds. We are talking about the 14-year-old heroin addict who had recently overdosed. Or there was the 13-year-old girl who was being commercially sexually exploited (in other words, prostituted by a pimp) and who had developed a serious meth addiction.

Sometimes the only time we can intervene in the life of a child being prostituted by her own parent is when a truancy petition is filed and a warrant issued for failing to appear. The parent certainly isn't going to advocate for the child. Other parents are mentally ill and can neither parent nor advocate. The Department rarely files dependency petitions in these circumstances, prioritizing younger children over those deemed less vulnerable.

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