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Does U.S. approach to truants, runaways do more harm than good?

Published: Friday, Dec. 27 2013 9:15 a.m. MST

In this Dec. 7, 2012 file photo, Roxanne Rutty, left, a registrar with the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, waits in the doorway as correctional officers line up for their graduation from the Sergeants Academy at a training facility, in Forsyth, Ga.

David Goldman, Associated Press

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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.

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