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Youth Shelter Policy To Change July 1

Kate Elston

In Washington state, when a child runs away and goes to a shelter, the shelter has three days before it must legally contact parents or the police. But on Sunday, that will change.


YouthCare is a shelter near the University District for kids under 18. It's a safe place for runaways to sleep, eat and just watch TV. For the last two years, shelters like YouthCare have had three days to figure out how to help each runaway kid. After that, the law requires them to call parents or authorities.

Hedda McLendon is director of programs at YouthCare. She says that three–day window is crucial for runaways.

McLendon: "They get a meal, they get to stay in a bed for the evening, they get to wake up and process with staff, and process their experience, and process why've they've run away — which gives us more time to build that needed relationship."

But starting Sunday, shelters will have to act faster. They will only have eight hours before they have to start notifying authorities. That's the way it used to be. The rule stems from 1995 state legislation called the Becca Bill. It was named for a 13–year–old who ran away and was murdered.

Legislators were afraid that shelters could conceal missing kids while parents looked for them. That's why they set the original eight hour deadline. Then in 2010, lawmakers passed a revision to the Becca Bill that extended the time to three days. But not all legislators were on board with the change, so the extension was temporary.

YouthCare's McClendon wishes it were permanent. She says eight hours is not enough time for shelters to get kids' to trust them. She says if kids know shelters have to call authorities, they will stay on the street.

McLendon: "By staying on the street, what we find is that many of our youth end up selling themselves. It's very likely they'll become engaged with a pimp."

McLendon says shelters can protect kids from the dangers of street life. But Senator Mike Carrell disagrees that shelters need three days to do that. He's one of the authors of the original Becca Bill. He says parents have a right to know where their kids are sooner.

Carrell: "The fact that runaway shelters are acting as enablers of juveniles is no good for society. The sooner we can find out what's going on, and you can do that within eight hours, the better off the families are going to be because they've got to be notified about where their child is."

Carrell says he doesn't want to extend the deadline once again, but agencies like YouthCare want to see the three–day window reinstated. Changes will have to wait until the next legislative session.

I'm Kate Elston for KUOW News.

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