Join the informed writers of The Times' editorial board in lively discussions at our blog, Opinion Northwest.
February 20, 2014 at 6:08 AM
Prevent Washington’s foster kids from running away
My Thursday column on sex trafficking and the foster care system opened with a line about the number of wards running away from homes they’ve been placed in by the state.
Below are three charts that show the extent of the problem between January 2010 and March 2013. These graphs from Columbia Legal Services are from the last report compiled by the state Department of Social and Health Services for a now-defunct working group called Missing from Care.
1. How many kids under the care of the state run away each month? DSHS reported a low of 116 runaways in January 2010 and a high of 172 in April 2012.
2. How many days did the kids go missing? The median number ranged between 29 days as of April 2012 to a high of 62 days in December 2012.
3. How many times overall did foster kids attempt to run away? These numbers are different from the first chart because some foster kids may have tried to run more than once in any given month.
As I mentioned in the column, DSHS has six people on staff who are trained to find missing kids. Casey Trupin, one of the attorneys for Columbia Legal Services who represented foster kids in the 2004 Braam settlement agreement with DSHS, suggests the state needs to hire three times as many locators.”The more time that a foster youth spends on the streets, the more difficult it becomes to protect that youth from being trafficked and sexually assaulted,” Trupin says. “We need to offer these youth solutions early on so that they can avoid these terrible outcomes.”
Numerous advocacy groups are working to normalize the experiences of foster kids to prevent them from running away in the first place.
At the state level, bills to watch include SB 6126 and HB 2335/SB 6101. The former would make it mandatory for counties to assign foster kids with attorneys to help them navigate the legal system. The Times’ editorial board supported the bill in this Feb. 16 editorial. The Senate passed the measure on Monday night. The House should do the same. The latter bills did not survive cut-off deadlines in the Legislature, but lawmakers should find the will to expand the Extended Foster Care program (at an estimated cost of about $1 million) so that more foster kids have a support system to help them transition out of state care and stay away from harm. If lawmakers can’t do it this session, they should try again next year.
There’s some hope for progress at the congressional level, too. On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., chair of a congressional subcommittee that oversees the foster care system, held a public hearing in Auburn on the issue of sex trafficking. Last week, he introduced a legislative package to combat the problem. Among the bill’s highlights, as outlined on Reichert’s website:
1. Help identify victims of child sex trafficking and ensure states develop plans to help and serve these children
2. Improve the data on this problem and the services provided to them
3. Ensure youth in foster care can live more normal, fulfilling lives that make them less vulnerable to sex trafficking
4. Ensure states do more to move kids quickly out of foster care into loving families if they can’t return home
5. Ensure youth in foster care are better prepared for a successful adulthood.
Reichert says his legislation already has bipartisan support. The challenge is funding. Congress should find the political will to implement these reforms and end the sex trafficking of society’s most vulnerable kids.