Down to the wire
Advocates missed an important deadline, and homeless teens will pay the price
The minute a homeless child sets foot in a shelter, the clock is ticking. Shelter workers have 72 hours to build a rapport before they call the cops or the child’s parents.
Those three days are vital, youth advocates say. It gives them time to figure out why minors are homeless and determine how best to help them. Shelter staff must determine whether a young person ran away because of a small argument at home or if the teen is fleeing abuse.
“It’s a bit of an art, building that relationship,” said Derek Wentorf, director of homeless youth services at Friends of Youth in Redmond.
Because the relationship takes time, advocates fought for the legal provision that gives shelter workers 72 hours before they must notify police or guardians if a minor shows up at a shelter. In 2010, University of Washington law students secured the modification to the Becca Law, a package of regulations designed to protect teens. But the modification was a two-year trial.
Time’s up. And with legislators and advocates focused on balancing a $2 billion budget shortfall, no one bothered to get the two-year trial extended.
Now, homeless youth will lose their three-day reprieve from the streets.
Starting July 1, shelter workers will have eight hours with a child who has come in off the streets before they must call the child’s parents or the police. The mere suggestion that such a call is imminent is enough to scare many kids out the door, shelter workers say.
Now, Wentorf worries shelter workers are being asked to do the impossible.
“How do we build that confidence and relationship with a young person in such a small time window?” he said.
The Becca Law was created to reconcile families, something that might not be possible in an eight-hour span, said Casey Trupin, a children’s attorney at Columbia Legal Services. With more time, shelter workers can often get teens back into their homes and link families with support services.
“The eight-hour provision stands in the way of family reconciliation,” Trupin said
But until January, when the legislature reconvenes and the law can be reinstated, reconciliation will have to wait.
Keeping kids in school
The Washington State Legislature passed the Becca Law in 1995. It was named for Rebecca Hedman, a 13-year-old girl who was murdered in 1993. Hedman had fallen into prostitution and was killed by one of her clients.
Hedman’s father, Dennis Hedman, advocated to give parents more control over the whereabouts of their children and help keep them in school.
But the Becca Law had unintended consequences, including, in some cases, driving homeless kids further into the shadows.
Soon after the Becca Law went into effect, word got around among street kids that shelters would call their parents after eight hours.
“They just simply stopped showing up,” said Kristine Cunningham, executive director of Rising Out of the Shadows (roots), a young adult shelter in the University District. “They stopped trusting everybody.”
A group of churches operating a rotating shelter in the University District decided to defy the law, citing churches’ legal right to provide sanctuary, but the damage had already been done. No one showed up at the shelter, and the churches eventually closed it.
Thanks to the Becca Law, the only places providing shelter to minors were — and will be again — those willing to call parents immediately.
“There are clearly young people who are not served by that law,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham sees many young people, in their late teens and early 20s, at roots. The shelter was created to serve homeless young adults, most of whom previously stayed on the streets because they were afraid teen shelters would send them back to their parents, Cunningham said.
Abusive parents could use the Becca Law to control their children, Cunningham said, citing an incident in Walla Walla.
A young man there tried to flee an abusive household, but his mom threatened to sue his classmates for violating the Becca Law if they let him crash with them.
Homeless teens are already hard to draw out. Advocates aren’t sure how many homeless youth may be on the streets, but their numbers seem to be growing.
Different organizations have produced wildly different counts, but each organization says they believe they’re undercounting.
The Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness offers overnight shelter for teens so they can be counted, but it found just 35 in 2010.
Teen Feed, which provides meals in the University District, counted 1,132 homeless teens during a survey collection earlier this year.
Public schools in King County reported 3,753 homeless students in 2010.
Statewide, schools reported 16,853 in 2007 and 21,826 in 2010.
When she opened My Friend’s Place, a 16-bed teen shelter in the Tri-Cities, Sue Delucchi, Executive Director of Safe Harbor Crisis Nursery, expected two or three kids each month.
In the last six months, 25 kids have shown up, and the shelter sometimes has eight at a time.
With each of them, she said, it takes about 24 hours before they open up and start talking.
“We have a very home-like shelter,” Delucchi said. “Usually everything just sort of spills out.”
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