MAY 14, 1996
Rod Minott of KCTS-Seattle reports on how best to deal with teenage runaways. A new Washington State law designed to protect them has provoked a court challenge.
SPOKESMAN: How are you doing? We've got one. We'll be down here.
ROD MINOTT: On the streets of Seattle, Greg McCormack roams as a kind of angel of mercy on wheels.
GREG McCORMACK, Street Links: You guys need any socks or anything?
MR. MINOTT: Five nights a week he and his partner Pat Gillan deliver food and clothing to homeless youth.
GREG McCORMACK: Okay. We got PBJ's. Tonight we got tomato soup. We got hot chocolate, coffee.
MR. MINOTT: It's estimated that on any given night there are between five hundred and one thousand homeless youth on the streets of Seattle. To get a handle on the problem, Washington State lawmakers recently passed a law designed to rescue these children, a law that possibly puts McCormack and others in a precarious position, because it requires those who shelter and provide help to runaways to report them to police or parents. Previously, shelters were not required to report runaways, and many police often gave up trying to keep them off the streets. McCormack thinks the new law could make life even tougher for young runaways.
GREG McCORMACK: Now instead of running to the police when a perpetrator is after them or a sexual predator is after them, now they're running from the police and the predator as well. And it's just one more group of people to run from.
MR. MINOTT: But the law known as the Becca Bill was passed by parents and legislators who said they wanted to save their kids. The law was named for 13-year-old Becca Hedman, a teenage runaway who worked the streets as a prostitute. Her father, Dennis Hedman, remembers what happened to her three years ago.
DENNIS HEDMAN, Becca's Father: She's standing on a street corner. She gets picked up by a 36-year-old white male who pays her $50 to have sex. She accompanies him back to his room, they perform the act. He was not satisfied, wanted his money back. Uh, Becca told him no. She turned her back to get dressed. He pulled a baseball bat from--out from under the bed and beat her to death.
MR. MINOTT: That murder and his inability to save his daughter sent Hedman on a mission to radically change Washington State's juvenile laws. Besides making the reporting of runaways a legal requirement, the Becca Law also set up a statewide network of lock crisis shelters to hold runaways for up to five days, and in a dramatic turnaround, the law scrapped provisions in juvenile law that required the consent of teenagers before they were put into mental health, drug, or alcohol therapy. Under the new law, the parents do not need consent before committing their children.
MIKE CARRELL, Washington State Representative: Do you parents have certain goals and things that they're telling you they want you to do?
MR. MINOTT: The legislation was sponsored by State Representative Mike Carrell.
MIKE CARRELL: We have never addressed the kids who are mentally ill, who are drug-addicted. The question I would ask you: Is it a right for children to go out on our street and die? We essentially changed this to say that you are a child until the age of 18. Your parents are there and society are there to protect you.
MR. MINOTT: But those who have been providing for the runaways are worried the bill's reporting rules have driven the teenagers further underground. Nancy Amidei is a social worker who heads a Seattle area task force aimed at helping homeless youth.
NANCY AMIDEI, Partnership for Youth: I can tell you that right after the bill was signed in this area at least, all of the service providers noticed a quick drop in the number of kids seeking service. In fact, in some of the shelters, we went from twenty youngsters a night to two. That was a big drop.
WOMAN: (speaking in group) There are so few beds in any kind of group home.
MR. MINOTT: Youth service providers have been struggling with how best to protect themselves and their clients.
RACHEL MEYERS, Covenant House: I think a lot of youth service agencies are kind of going right now on sort of a "don't ask, don't tell" policy. If you don't ask a kid if they ran away and their parent doesn't want them to be gone, then you have a reason to think that maybe it's okay for them to be away from home. This part isn't very clear, and my guess is that it's not going to be clear whether or not it's safe to use a "don't ask, don't tell" until it's challenged in court.
MR. MINOTT: Providers also worry what kind of environment they're sending kids back to.
NANCY AMIDEI: The youngsters that we see who are on the streets for a length of time who feel they have to survive by being on the streets for most of them the situation is not a good one at home. About a fourth have literally been shoved out, pushed out by their parents. Altogether, about three-fourths have experienced some form of abuse or serious neglect.
MR. MINOTT: That feeling was echoed by teenagers like 17-year-old "Angel," who ran away a year ago.
"ANGEL": So my mom would like hit me, punch me, umm, throw me, and my stepdaddy, he, when he was living with us, he would like hit me up the side of the head, say like mean things to me.
MR. MINOTT: But legislator Carrell thinks for many kids charges of abuse at home may be unfounded.
MIKE CARRELL: The fact that the child has ran [run] away could be for any number of reasons, and just because a child says I've been abused doesn't mean that they've been abused, uh, and there are lots, hundreds, thousands of cases where people are making false accusation of this. This is the, the tactical nuclear weapon of the 1990's.
MR. MINOTT: Although the legislation is only 11 months old, the provision which allows parents to lock up their child in a mental institution already is being challenged in the courts. The case involves a 15-year-old known as "T.B.". Her parents asked that she not be identified on camera. Last fall, the parents forcibly committed "T.B." to this private psychiatric hospital. "T.B." remained here for three weeks before escaping. In testimony before the State Supreme Court, "T.B.'s" mother said she forced her runaway daughter to be hospitalized out of fear for the child's safety.
WOMAN: She has a diagnosed mental illness and because of it, she's unable to make sound and responsible decisions on her own behalf. When we acted, she had withdrawn from school and lacked the ability to live in any kind of structured environment--even a youth shelter--without running away.
MR. MINOTT: But "T.B." says she does not have a mental illness and objected to being locked up.
"T.B.": For me, it made me more angry and, I mean, it made me want to run away more and not talk to them at all for a long time, and it doesn't--it didn't really help.
MR. MINOTT: "T.B.'s" attorney, Mary Perdue, argues locking teenagers up against their will in a mental hospital violates their constitutional rights.
MARY PERDUE, T.B.'s Lawyer: Because it's actually the director of a for-profit hospital making the decision, we're saying it's unconstitutional to let that person who has a financial interest in the decision make the decision, that the person who should be making the decision is someone who's independent, neutral, and we're saying that that should be, that should be a judge.
MR. MINOTT: While the courts consider what to do, on the home front "T.B." appears to have won a partial victory. She said her parents have backed off from putting her in a hospital and that she'd recently left the streets and returned home. Despite the fact that "T.B." and her parents have resolved some of their differences, the case remains in the courts, backed by a number of youth and civil rights groups. The outcome of the case is expected to set a legal precedent in how Washington State handles its runaways teens.
GREG McCORMACK: (talking to teen) Want a sandwich?
MR. MINOTT: Meantime on the streets of Seattle, Greg McCormack has not seen any decrease in the number of runaways, and whatever the outcome of the court case, he expects to be just as busy every night, tending to the ever-growing street population.