Washington State Gets Tough on Runaway Teens

WHEN Brenda Jones's daughter Ruth ran away a few years ago, she went to the police in anguish. But the officer didn't even take notes, Mrs. Jones recalls, because Washington State's laws on runaways gave parents and authorities virtually no power to intervene.

In an effort to protect youngsters fleeing abuse at home, the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of children's rights, Jones says.

No longer.

Washington State this month enacted a new law that allows police to pick up runaways and return them to their parents. It also permits parents to commit children under 18 to drug or mental-health facilities -- and requires schools to tell of truancies.

Though even tougher provisions were dropped from the statute, it marks a return to a more law-and-order approach to runaway teens tried by states in the 1970s. Critics contend such a ''punitive'' approach will drive troubled youths away from help they need. Supporters see it as necessary to help curb an enduring problem.

Thus, the experience of Washington -- traditionally, one of the more liberal states on juvenile-justice laws -- is being closely watched across the country. Each year, as many as 500,000 youths fend for themselves on America's streets.

''We need to stop and recognize that Washington State's current juvenile laws are part of the problem,'' argues Norm Maleng, a prosecutor in King County, Washington.

Kentucky and Wyoming are the only states that currently treat running away as a punishable ''status offense.'' Many others, including Washington, decriminalized running away in the late 1970s, encouraged by the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974.

Some of the toughest provisions in Washington's new law -- ones opposed by care providers and youths -- were vetoed by Gov. Mike Lowry (D) before he signed the bill. These would have allowed judges to place habitual runaways in a secure treatment facility for up to six months, and suspended truant students' driver's licenses. They would have also required shelters to notify parents or local police within eight hours of a runaway's arrival.

The Runaway Alliance, a parents group, saw these provisions as needed to provide the structure and discipline to bring children back from the brink.

Their views are backed by the tale of Ruth Goode, Jones's daughter by a previous marriage. Ruth, now 16 and living with Jones near Tacoma, says it was the stringent runaway laws of Kentucky that finally saved her.

''If I didn't go there, then I would probably be running away still or be dead,'' she says. Ruth left behind gang violence when she fled to her native Kentucky in 1993. By this time, she says, ''running'' had become her way of dealing with problems.

Kentucky's law stopped her long enough to break the pattern. After being picked up a third time, runaways there are put in secure group homes. At first, Ruth says she wanted to leave the home. But she couldn't. Doing chores and attending an alternative school, Ruth gradually gained self-confidence. Through the example of one woman who worked there, ''I found God,'' she says.

Her mother worries that Washington State's new law still wouldn't save someone like Ruth, who was never addicted to hard drugs, though she used marijuana and alcohol.

Still, Phil Sullivan, associate director of Youth Care, a Seattle shelter, argues a return to the pre-1974 lock-up approach ''could easily push young people further underground'' rather than help them. This is because many homeless youths are trying to escape troubled homes and feel betrayed by authority figures.

Youth Care says 35 percent of the runaways it sees fled physical abuse at home; 11 percent were sexually abused by their parents; and 34 percent ran from a parent with drug or alcohol problems.

Requiring shelters to notify parents within eight hours would keep many runaways from coming in off the streets, Mr. Sullivan says. Shelters, in turn, are often a transitional stage toward returning home or getting placed in a foster home.

Sullivan is also concerned about the provision for police to take runaways home. Although youths will not be returned home if they allege abuse, those who suffer abuse often are not quick to talk about it, he says.

Jim Theofolis, a therapist at Youth Care's shelter, says he generally supports the new law, after the vetoes. He asserts that the age-of-consent boost, allowing forced drug or mental-health treatment, ''alone will address 90 percent of the concerns raised by parents.''

That change promises to help Denise and Dwayne Dickinson, whose teenage daughter has been on in and out of treatment six times. In July, when the new law becomes effective, the Clarkston, Wash., couple hopes to get their daughter into secure drug treatment.

Mrs. Dickinson, who founded the Runaway Alliance, says street youths too often fall prey to scourges such as drugs, violence, and prostitution. She says her daughter lived for a while with a 38-year-old man who gave her drugs in exchange for sex, meanwhile prostituting other girls.

No one expects the new law to be a quick fix for the many-faceted runaway problem. But Dickinson says she hopes it will be an improvement.

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