More than two decades after the beaten body of a Tacoma runaway was found along the Spokane River, a photo of her hangs prominently on the wall in a King County juvenile courtroom.
It’s the same photo Rebecca Hedman’s parents took to Olympia 20 years ago to push lawmakers to pass the Becca Bill, which gave parents more authority to seek help for their runaway children.
Yet today, critics say the law passed in the 13-year-old’s memory does more harm than good. It is the main reason Washington leads the nation in the number of times judges send children to jail for noncriminal offenses, such as skipping school or running away.
Becca’s mother and father, Darlene and Dennis Hedman, now say the law isn’t working as they intended: as a way to connect troubled children with resources and professional help.
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Some say that’s partly because the Legislature hasn’t provided enough funding for detention alternatives.
The Becca Bill lets judges in Washington place kids in juvenile detention for repeatedly skipping school, breaking curfew or running away from home — actions known as status offenses, which wouldn’t be illegal for anyone 18 or older.
In 2011, the most recent year for which federal data is available, judges in Washington ordered status offenders to spend time in juvenile detention 2,705 times, more than twice as often as any other state.
Kentucky, the No. 2 state for detaining juveniles for status offenses that year, did so only 1,048 times — and has since changed its law to discourage the practice.
Some state lawmakers and youth advocacy groups say it’s time for Washington to change its law, too.
Already, several counties in Washington are pursuing alternatives to detaining teens who appear in court for noncriminal offenses such as truancy. Yet statewide, the number of times judges order youth to spend time in detention for disobeying court orders in those types of cases remains high.
Critics of Washington’s system say sending kids to up to seven days of detention for repeatedly skipping school or running away hasn’t been shown to change their behavior and can actually traumatize them instead.
“We use it too frequently,” said state Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma. “It’s harmful, and it’s costly.”
Darneille and others worry especially about effects of detaining youth whose worst offense is playing hooky alongside teenagers who have committed crimes such as murder or assault.
“They are put in with other kids who are more delinquent than they are,” said George Yeannakis, special counsel for the Seattle-based youth advocacy group TeamChild. “There’s no difference (in how they are treated) — it’s the same judge, the same court, the same detention facility. A lot of kids will see themselves as part of that system.”
Yet supporters of the law say it has kept many kids from advancing to more serious crimes, and in some cases, may have saved them from ending up like Becca Hedman.
Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam and the original Senate sponsor of the Becca Bill, said that without the threat of detention, judges “would have no leverage” to make kids follow court orders to attend school or come home at night.
“Becca was put together to keep kids from getting hurt — to keep kids from getting into the criminal justice system,” Hargrove said. “It was to protect the kids, not to punish them.”
‘WE COULDN’T STOP HER’
Dennis and Darlene Hedman felt helpless when their 13-year-old daughter called them from a payphone in September 1993, having just walked out of a drug treatment center in Spokane.
Her message to them that day: Don’t try to find me this time.
It was the first the Hedmans heard there was a problem with Becca’s new drug treatment program. The center where they’d dropped her off hadn’t told them she’d left, they said.
“She called us collect, and told us she was on the street, and don’t come looking for her,” Darlene Hedman recalled.
By then, Becca was 13, and known on the street as “Misty.” She was working as prostitute to fund her addiction to crack cocaine.
State law at the time didn’t allow parents to admit their children to drug treatment without the child’s consent unless a child was 12 or younger. Nor did the law explicitly require individuals or youth shelters to notify parents if a runaway child came or left.
After Becca first ran away from her parents’ home in Tacoma at the age of 12, she ended up in the custody of law enforcement or the state Department of Social and Health Services at least seven times, Dennis Hedman said, “and we didn’t even get a phone call.”
“We couldn’t stop her from running away,” Darlene Hedman said in a recent interview. “That’s what got us into the Becca Bill — we had no parenting rights.”
A month after Becca called her parents from the Spokane payphone, she was dead.
A man who paid Becca $50 for sex demanded his money back afterward, and she refused, prosecutors said. The man then clubbed her six times in the head with a baseball bat, cracking her skull, and dumped her nude body near the Spokane River.
When he confessed, John Medlock didn’t give prosecutors much of a reason for killing the 13-year-old girl, except to say the sex wasn’t very good.
In 1995, a jury found Medlock guilty of murdering Becca and sentenced him to 26 years in prison.
WHAT THE LAW DOES
Less than a month after Becca’s death, her parents gathered around their dining room table and wrote down on a legal pad all the things they thought could have helped save their daughter.
They joined other parents and took that list to Olympia, along with a photo of Becca from the year before she ran away. Together, they pushed lawmakers to grant parents more authority over their runaway kids.
Lawmakers responded by passing the Becca Bill in 1995. The new law did several things. For one, it established that anyone providing shelter to a runaway must notify police or the child’s parents.
It then clarified procedures by which parents could file a court petition to get their minor child to abide by certain rules, such as not running away or staying clean of alcohol and drugs. Kids, too, could file a petition to seek an out-of-home placement if they had problems at home.
Significantly, the Becca Bill also required school districts to file truancy petitions in juvenile court if a student has seven unexcused absences in a month or 10 in a year.
Judges can order the children who appear before them for truancy or at-risk youth petitions to follow rules such as attending school every day, submitting to drug and alcohol testing, or coming home every day by a certain time.
If a child doesn’t comply with the court’s order, the judge can impose sanctions, including up to seven days in juvenile detention.
After the Becca Bill became law, judges quickly began using detention to push truant and runaway kids to comply with court orders.
In 1994, the year before the law was passed, judges in Washington placed minors in juvenile detention for noncriminal offenses 222 times, according to the state Office of Juvenile Justice. By 1997, that number had risen to 2,053 — an increase of 825 percent.
In recent years, judges in Washington have used detention as a sanction slightly more often for runaways than for truants.
Of the 2,812 times Washington judges placed youth status offenders in detention in 2013, 47 percent were related to violations of court orders in at-risk youth or runaway cases, while 42 percent were for truancy cases, according to the state Office of Juvenile Justice.
The rest of the detentions mainly involved children violating court orders in dependency cases, in which the state seeks to place children in foster care or remove them from a parent’s home.
DOWNSIDES TO DETENTION
Many researchers and legal experts say that putting children in detention for noncriminal activity doesn’t usually improve their behavior and can actually make their problems worse.
According to a 2008 publication of the American Bar Association, detaining youth status offenders “increases the possibility of their engaging in antisocial behavior,” while also limiting their access to helpful interventions they might receive at home or out in the community.
Other researchers note that children who skip school or run away often have mental health problems or a history of abuse, problems difficult to deal with in a detention facility.
“They need care, treatment, and services — not confinement — to address the underlying causes of their troubling behavior, and to prevent deeper and more costly entanglement in the juvenile or criminal justice systems,” according to a 2009 article that appeared in the Seattle Journal for Social Justice, an academic journal published by Seattle University’s School of Law.
But Hargrove said if lawmakers took away judges’ ability to impose detention on children who don’t obey a court order, the Becca Bill would be ineffective at getting students the help they need and keeping them out of the criminal justice system.
"The whole point is just to give the judges some way to enforce their attempt to get those kids back on the right track,” Hargrove said. “The intent is not to use it a lot.”
Hargrove said the state’s declining adult and youth crime rates since 1995 can be attributed largely to the Becca Bill, which he said has helped keep truants and runaways from becoming adult criminals. David Edwards, a Grays Harbor County Superior Court judge, also said he believes his use of detention for truants and at-risk kids is part of why juvenile crime rates in his county have dropped.
A 2010 analysis from the nonpartisan Washington State Institute for Public Policy found the Becca Bill had no statistically significant effect on high school enrollment in Washington. Nor could the institute determine whether the Becca Bill caused the state’s reduction in crime and juvenile arrests.
Peter Collins, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Seattle University, said that Washington’s declining crime rate in the past 20 years has been in line with nationwide trends. “There’s kind of a false attribution of the effect of incarceration on these rates,” he said.
“When we get into whether or not these sanctions have a deterrent effect, it’s actually the opposite of what we’re seeing: Either they don’t have an effect or they have a harmful effect,” Collins said.
‘WE DON’T HAVE OTHER ALTERNATIVES’
Many juvenile justice officials agree that it’s bad practice to place kids who haven’t committed crimes alongside those who have been convicted of serious violent offenses.
“There is not one piece of research out there that suggests this is the right thing to do,” said TJ Bohl, the juvenile court administrator in Pierce County.
Yet detaining status offenders is still common practice in Washington, partly because many judges don’t feel they have adequate alternatives.
In a photo Hargrove likes to share, he and former Tacoma state Sen. Rosa Franklin stand in front of a flowchart, attempting in 1995 to explain the complexities of the Becca Bill to other Senate Democrats. In the image, Hargrove can be seen pointing to a large box at the beginning of the diagram that reads “CRC” — an abbreviation for “crisis residential center.”
The Becca Bill established secure crisis residential centers, or CRCs, as emergency shelters where police could bring runaway children after picking them up on the streets. The idea was to keep the children at a secure CRC for one to five days to assess what they needed — whether it be drug and alcohol counseling, mental health treatment or an out-of-home placement away from their parents.
Unlike detention facilities, secure CRCs generally don’t have locks on their doors and windows, but they are “staff-secure,” meaning that children are closely monitored and that building entrances are equipped with alarms that will notify staff if children walk out.
Many judges would like to be able to place children in secure CRCs instead of detention when they violate a court order in a truancy or at-risk youth case, said Stephen Warning, a Cowlitz County Superior Court judge. But most judges aren’t able to do that, he said, because that key element of Hargrove’s diagram — the CRC part — has become a missing link in most areas of the state.
“Certainly I agree putting these kids in detention is a concern,” Warning told a Senate committee in February. “But I noted when Sen. Hargrove’s flow chart for Becca got put up on the wall ... up in the upper left hand corner there’s a great big box that says CRC. Well, For 34 counties, that box is empty, and we don’t have that option available to us.”
Funding cuts, combined with a limited money for the centers to begin with, meant the number of secure crisis residential center beds last year dropped to 34 for the entire state, and those beds were available in only five of the state’s 39 counties: Chelan, King, Yakima, Clark and Clallam.
Prior to budget cuts in 2009, there were 60 secure CRC beds in nine locations throughout the state.
While an additional 32 crisis residential center beds are available at nonsecure facilities in Washington, only six counties have access to those.
In an ideal world, CRCs could also provide an alternative to a jail cell for runaways or at-risk-youth who are wanted under a warrant for failing to appear in court, said Bohl, the Pierce County juvenile court administrator.
Right now, a child who runs away and then misses a court hearing in an at-risk youth case may have a bench warrant issued for his or her arrest. In many counties, including large ones like Pierce, those children are taken directly to juvenile detention if they are picked up by police on a warrant and never redirected to a crisis residential center — primarily, because there isn’t one available.
Children picked up on warrants may remain in detention until they can appear in court the next business day for a contempt hearing. That could mean up to three days in detention if a child is brought in on a Friday night — and potentially more if a judge orders him or her back to detention as a sanction.
Bohl called that “a gap in our system.”
“One of the big challenges for Pierce County is we don’t have other alternatives,” said Bohl, who oversees the juvenile detention facility at Remann Hall in Tacoma. “The kid is either at home or in detention. There’s no stop-gap in between.”
Darlene Hedman said when she and her husband fought for the Becca Bill 20 years ago, jailing runaways was never what she wanted, but that’s what she sees happening today.
“There is no funding for kids, runaways, to get picked up and sent somewhere besides Remann Hall if they haven’t committed a crime,” she said. “We weren’t meaning to treat runaways as criminals, but that’s what it’s ended up being.”
For Starcia Ague, being placed in detention after she ran away from her foster home didn’t inspire her to start following the rules.
At 14, Ague was placed with a family in Lacey after being taken from her parents, who were involved in drug trafficking. But she didn’t feel welcome in her new foster home, she said; she felt the family treated her as a paycheck rather than a person.
So she ran.
Twice, Ague was picked up on a warrant and placed in detention until she could appear before a judge, she said. At the time, her only crime was running away.
Being placed in a jail cell made her feel as if she was a failure and a criminal, just like her parents, she said.
“Being behind the cell reinforced everything everyone had said: That I am going to be just like them,” said Ague, who is now 27.
“Back then, I didn’t understand why they were locking me up with a bunch of kids who were in there for criminal charges. It’s not like they separate them from the other youth,” she said.
Ague wasn’t scared straight by her brief stays in detention. Instead, a year later she ended up there on a more permanent basis after participating in a robbery gone wrong — an attempt to steal enough money to pay off a family debt, she said.
Looking back, Ague said she didn’t get the help she needed when she was detained as a runaway.
“There wasn’t like a counselor or someone to talk to. It wasn’t like there were services in there for the few days that you were in there,” she said. “It then becomes, ‘how do you transition back the community?’ And you have this label on you.”
“I felt like I didn’t really have a chance, that people already felt I was a bad kid, a bad seed.”
APPROACHES VARY BY COUNTY
The lack of crisis residential center beds is indicative of a larger problem in the Becca system: That many judges feel they have too few resources available to help kids who appear before them in truancy or at-risk youth cases.
Dennis Hedman said he feels the Becca Bill has largely been gutted due to inadequate funding for youth and family support services — and not just for the CRCs, but also for drug treatment and mental health counseling.
“The Becca Bill is like a 20-year-old watchdog, lying on your porch with four teeth,” he said. “It still has a couple of teeth left, but it’s not what it used to be.”
Jacqueline Jeske, a King County Superior Court commissioner, said she thinks Hargrove and others who developed the Becca Bill “were ahead of their time” by looking to provide troubled youth with counseling, drug treatment and other support services that could help them avoid becoming criminal offenders.
However, “that promise has never really been fulfilled with adequate and stable funding for interventions,” said Jeske, who presides over at-risk youth and truancy cases in the King County Juvenile Court.
Today, Jeske keeps a photo of Becca Hedman in the two courtrooms where she hears runaway and truancy cases in Seattle and Kent. She said the photo reminds her and other court staff of the tragic outcomes they are looking to prevent.
“I’m using it to honor the work that we do on her behalf, so there won’t be any more youth like her,” Jeske said.
But judges have different takes on the best way to keep young people safe and how often detention should be used for that purpose — especially for youth status offenders who haven’t committed a crime.
In population-dense King County, for instance, judges sent juvenile status offenders to detention 200 times in 2013, according to numbers from the state Office of Juvenile Justice.
Meanwhile, judges in rural Grays Harbor County detained status offenders 559 times the same year, even though the county has a much smaller youth population. Only about 7,000 children between the ages of 10 and 17 live in Grays Harbor County, compared with about 180,000 in King County.
Local counties also trail Grays Harbor in terms of how often they jail youth for noncriminal offenses. Pierce County detained juvenile status offenders 105 times in 2013, while Thurston County detained status offenders 89 times that year.
DETENTION AS A LAST RESORT
Superior Court Judge David Edwards, who presides over truancy and at-risk youth cases in Grays Harbor County, said often he will put a child in detention for a noncriminal violation “if I think it is the only safe place for him or her to be.”
Sometimes that means detaining children to protect them from abuse at home or to help get them treatment for an acute mental health condition that makes them a danger to themselves or others, he said.
“There is zero punishment involved in that decision, you understand,” Edwards said. “I’m doing it because I’m worried if I don’t, the child is going to get harmed.”
In truancy, at-risk and dependency cases, Edwards said he always starts by directing children and their parents to participate in counseling, anger control therapy, drug treatment or other services that could help them.
Things get more serious if children don’t follow the court-ordered plan, he said.
Edwards said he normally won’t put a child in detention the first time they disobey his order to stay at home, attend counseling, go to school or stay off drugs. But he will generally send truants and runaways to detention if they violate the court’s order a second time, he said.
“I always come back to the same point, and that is, ‘How can I help these kids become successful if I can’t teach them that there are consequences attached to their actions?’ ” Edwards said.
“I can order them to perform community service, but what if they don’t show up?” he asked. “If they don’t comply, I have to have the ability to compel compliance. And that’s where detention comes in.”
In King and Pierce counties, children may appear before a court commissioner after violating court orders multiple times and still not be placed in detention.
In a court case in March, Jeske was faced with a young man who frequently ran away from home or broke curfew, and had twice disobeyed her orders to attend school and stay clean and sober. At one point, the teenager had jumped out his bedroom window and ran away to avoid a court-ordered drug test.
Jeske didn’t put the teenager in detention. Instead, she told him to write a research paper on the job prospects for adults without a high school diploma.
She also gave him a choice for how he could purge his latest contempt order: attend a Seattle-based computer programming workshop on an upcoming Saturday or create a “vision board” — an art project in which he would depict his strengths, as well as what he sees as his weaknesses and the things that get him off track.
That project was to be carried out through a program known as Creative Justice, an art mentorship program that King County uses as an alternative to detention.
Grays Harbor County doesn’t have a community art program that can serve as an alternative to juvenile detention. Nor does the small county have access to electronic home monitoring for status offenders, an alternative to detention used in King County.
Yet Edwards said even when counties have those tools at their disposal, judges still need the option of using detention “as the ultimate method of compelling a student to do something.”
“I just don’t know how to get away from that,” he said.
WASHINGTON AN OUTLIER
While Washington isn’t the only state that allows judges to place youth status offenders in lockup, judges here appear to use that option more than anywhere else.
Although federal law generally prohibits detention of juveniles for noncriminal offenses, it makes an exception for when youth violate a direct order from a judge.
Nationwide, 26 states used the valid court order exception to detain juvenile status offenders in 2011, while another 23 states did not, according to the most recent data from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Judges throughout the United States sent juvenile status offenders to detention for violating court orders about 7,400 times that year, with Washington accounting for more than one-third of those instances.
Why are Washington’s numbers so high? Naomi Smoot, senior policy associate at the Coalition for Juvenile Justice in Washington, D.C., said some other states have stricter laws in place that ban detention for juveniles who haven’t committed criminal acts, even if a child is in contempt of court.
Additionally, judges in other states may be more likely to choose sanctions other than detention for children who violate court orders in noncriminal cases, Smoot said.
Yet even in states where detaining juveniles for non-crimes is allowed, most states don’t have a law in place like the Becca Bill that automatically triggers a court process after a certain number of missed school days.
A 2010 analysis by the Washington Institute for Public Policy found that of 43 states surveyed, only four — Washington, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas — required school districts to initiate a court case after a specified number of school absences.
Darneille, the senator from Tacoma, says the automatic process of sending kids to court for truancy is one reason Washington’s use of court orders to detain juvenile status offenders is so high.
This year, Darneille proposed eliminating juvenile detention as one of the potential sanctions for students who violate court orders in truancy cases. Her bill failed to advance in the Legislature.
Hargrove said Washington still doesn’t treat truancy as harshly as some states. Wyoming and Texas, for instance, charge truant students or their parents with a criminal misdemeanor in adult court. The federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention hasn’t tracked how often juveniles in Wyoming and Texas are jailed in those cases.
Things are changing in Texas, however. In June, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a measure that will decriminalize truancy in the Lone Star state. The new law will take effect Sept. 1.
This year, Becca Hedman would have turned 35.
Her parents — now retired and living on South Hill — raised four other children. They proudly talk of their 16 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, photos of whom are displayed throughout their home.
Their other legacy, the Becca Bill, they speak of with some regret.
“It’s not anywhere near the concept of the first Becca Bill, and nowhere near what anyone who worked on that was envisioning,” Darlene Hedman said.
Still, Jeske, the King County court commissioner, said she thinks judges throughout the state are trying to carry out the Hedmans’ vision — even if they struggle at times to find the resources to do so.
“I’m sure they hoped when they sought Sen. Hargrove’s help to never see another child lost like their child was lost,” Jeske said. “We’re trying to do the same thing ... trying to help families and connect them to meaningful interventions.”
Becca’s mother questions whether detention needs to be a part of that system, though.
“If they are running away, I don’t think it’s a crime to run away,” Darlene Hedman said. “I think it’s a cry for help to run away. And you don’t help them by putting them behind bars.”
Ague, the former runaway, agrees. Having received a gubernatorial pardon for the crimes she committed as a teenager, she is now the recipient of a national fellowship, working with the state Department of Social and Health Services to advance juvenile justice reforms.
“When you go through that process, it is for sure dehumanizing on so many levels,” Ague said. “The second a kid is being strip searched or has handcuffs on them for skipping school or running away, I don’t think we’re doing those kids any justice.”