Debate over jailing truants continues

  • Thu Apr 4th, 2019 1:30am
  • News

By Michael Lang

The Vidette

Grays Harbor County saw a 38 percent decrease in nonoffender youth incarcerations from 2016 to 2017. But these kids, whose only offense was being truant from school or being considered “At-Risk,” still make up 36.7 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds locked up in juvenile detention.

While the decrease is significant, Grays Harbor still has among the highest percentage of incarcerated kids who are nonoffenders, or status offenders.

Grays Harbor County Superior Court Judge David Edwards was appointed to the Grays Harbor County Superior Court in December 2007 by Gov. Chris Gregoire. He has been elected to the position three times since.

He handles a majority of the these cases.

“I felt that I was being propelled to use detention as a safe house for the kids. So while we had a lot of kids in our detention facility who were not offenders, many of them were not there as punishment,” Edwards said. “They were there because I had no safe place for them. And I could not simply turn them out into the street when they were standing in front of me homeless, drug addicted, with suicidal or other mental health issues. I needed to do something to keep them safe.”

Several years ago Grays Harbor County drew national attention for its use of detention for status offenders. According to a federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention survey, judges in Washington used court orders to detain status offenders more than twice as often as judges in other states.

In response to the fear of parents who had problems keeping their at risk children safe, off the streets and attending school, the Legislature gave courts the option of incarcerating students who were chronically truant.

Services

To reduce those numbers, Grays Harbor County added funds — from a one-tenth of one percent sales tax meant to fund mental health services — to support services for juvenile status offenders and their families.

“We put together a group, with citizens from the community and experts in dealing with juvenile behavior and juvenile law,” Edwards said. “And the upshot of it was we developed what is now called the System of Managed Care. In a nutshell, it is an early intervention program that allows for the provision of necessary services to kids and families.”

Today, navigators and community service coordinators in juvenile court help shepherd students through programs. More money is going toward services that intervene before crises get out of hand: Behavior Health Resources helps build family communication skills; True North Grays Harbor addresses chemical dependency; community service has become a way for students to face consequences for their actions without having to face detention.

“Since the System of Managed Care was implemented, which was almost exactly three years ago, our average daily population at the facility has gone from 25 to about 13 people,” Edwards said of the the Juvenile Detention Center in Aberdeen. “… A lot of that is due to the fact that we have all these other services available to us now. We’re able to intervene earlier to deal with situations before they become a crisis. And we’re able to get help to these families and these kids and avoid detention.”

School districts also are becoming more involved with Community Truancy Boards, that are meant to intervene in cases prior to students going before a judge. They are made up of members from the community who search for solutions that involve services already available to families. The state-mandated CTBs add a layer of intervention.

“All the school districts are completely invested in everything that goes on at Truancy Court,” Edwards said.

Legislature

But for some lawmakers, the state isn’t doing enough to eliminate status detentions.

Several bills have been put forward in Olympia to try to take away the option of detention for juvenile status offenders.

“There’s no logic to the model that a truant being taken out (of school) and put into a detention center is going to improve their academic outcome,” Sen. Jeannie Darneille said. “There is no evidence of that.”

Some people have described the use of detention of youths for violating a valid court order as a “hammer.” It’s the tool that makes it possible to enforce orders. Darneille sees it differently. That’s why she introduced Senate Bill 5290, which would eliminate the practice of detention for status offenders.

“They haven’t convinced me that the hammer has been used to build anything. It’s only been used to break things down,” she said.

After her bill passed the Senate on a 35-14 vote, the Tacoma Democrat said that if SB 5290 did not pass out of the House Appropriations Committee this week, that it likely would not be passed this year. In recent years, similar bills have struggled to become law. If this year’s efforts fail, the issue likely will return.

Last week, Rep. Jim Walsh (R-Aberdeen) added an amendment to SB 5290, and he could add more.

“I think it’s important that we give the judges some tools for trying to compel kids to go to school,” Walsh said. “… We’ll try to put some guardrails around it so that the use of detention would be limited but still available to judges.”

Rep. Tina Orwall’s House Bill 1106, which had similar goals of eliminating status detentions, did not make it out of the House Appropriations Committee.

Both Orwall and Darneille recognize that expanded community resources have helped cut down on the amount of status detentions.

“Courts get administrative resources to provide better access to care,” said Orwall, a Democrat from Des Moines. “Community Truancy Boards are working really well.”

Trauma

The people who work with these juveniles and their families speak of trauma the children face.

“A large number of At-Risk and CHINS (Children In Need of Services) youth have experienced some form of trauma early in life, whether it’s being around drugs in the home, violence against their parents, violence against themselves. They are dealing with adverse childhood experiences,” said Vazaskia Crockrell, director at state Office of Juvenile Justice. “And this trauma carries on in life. And if we’re not treating them, we’re doing more harm. … I’ve talked to a lot of kids, it’s very traumatic the in-take process of putting kids in there. When they’re already traumatized from their life experiences, we shouldn’t be adding trauma to these youth. We need to be providing them services in more humane way, because they don’t feel they have been treated that way.”

The Office of Juvenile Justice, which is a part of the Department of Social and Health Services, “is responsible for monitoring Washington state’s compliance with the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act,” according to its website.

“We have the opportunity to work with Department of Children, Youth and Families and programs to refer these families to the support they need,” Crockrell said. “We have to provide more intensive services to (the children). I don’t think it’s a matter of detention.”

Crisis housing

Tom Cresswell is the youth residential services director at YFA Connections’ Crisis Residential Center in Spokane. The CRC is a 15-bed temporary shelter for juveniles.

“While family reunification is the ultimate goal, the need for alternate resources may be identified. Our services address strengthening family relationships, providing linkages to appropriate community services, encouraging stable living conditions and assisting youth in planning a healthy future course of action,” YFA’s website states.

Cresswell says youths visit his facility 350 to 400 times per year.

“It’s a voluntary program, so it’s based on a youth and family’s willingness to stay,” he said. “We’re licensed as a residential facility. The most common things I see are youth 16-17 years old with a long history of trauma. They’ve been on their own and oftentimes, when they come in, they don’t want to follow our structure.”

One rule that ends up being a barrier, he says, is that personal cellphones are not allowed at the facility. But that doesn’t stop them from drawing youths from across Eastern Washington.

There are 3 CRCs across the state that offer safe beds for youths: Burlington (8 beds), Spokane (15) and Olympia (18). The state Department of Commerce also lists a CRC in Portland (11) that services Clark and Cowlitz counties. The CRCs are meant to be short-term housing for youths, up to two weeks. There also are two secure CRCs, in Port Angeles and Wenatchee, each with four beds, which are meant for involuntary admittance.

As a licensed facility, all CRCs are required to have one employee on duty for every four beds.

“Pretty much, from sun up to sun down, there’s some sort of active schedule going on that we find for young people who have not been in a safe place and haven’t had consistency,” said Derek Harris, CEO of Community Youth Services, which runs the Olympia CRC. “There’s a lot of safety in having a structured schedule in which they can know what’s happening from one minute to the next, know when meals are happening and know how the staff and youth will be interacting with each other. … I would like to see the continued expansion of these programs across our state. I believe they are funds well spent on a target population that wouldn’t otherwise have a safe place to be.”

Judge Edwards also would like to see a CRC built in Grays Harbor County.

“The one thing that is still lacking, and this is a problem with the state not providing the necessary funding, is that we don’t have a Crisis Residential Center,” he said. “The Legislature passed a statute several years ago authorizing these facilities to house kids who are in crisis … typically some combination of homelessness, drug addiction and mental health issues. … (The CRCs are) expensive to build and expensive to maintain. So I understand why the Legislature hasn’t just built 30 or 40 of these things, but we need one.”

Rep. Walsh also would like to get a CRC facility running in Grays Harbor.

“I think (a CRC in Grays Harbor County) will happen eventually. I don’t know if it will happen soon,” he said. “The urgent issue for me was getting (Coastal Community Action Program) permanently situated (after the fire at the Aberdeen armory museum displaced the organization).”

Reach Michael Lang, editor for The Vidette, at 360-537-3936 or mlang@thevidette.com.