A status offense is the illegal behavior of a youth under age 18. According to the law, that same behavior would not be criminal if committed by an adult. Some examples of status offenses include truancy, running away from biological family or a foster care placement, or violating curfews.
According to the Federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), youth cannot be placed in secure detention or locked confinement for committing status offenses. However, the valid court order (VCO) exception is an amendment to the JJDPA that says if there is a VCO with which a youth is not complying, the youth can be held in detention. The problem is that these youth have not committed crimes, and there’s a myriad of different options to engage youth in needed services besides lockup.
In 2014, Washington used the VCO exception 2,705 times, the most in the country. Because of this, the federal government fines Washington $1.1 million annually. Washington has become accustomed to this practice in part because of the so-called BECCA bill, a piece of legislation that was put into effect in 1996 as a way to help parents keep their kids safe. Since then, we have mainly used the VCO to combat truancy, but it has also been used to detain at-risk youth, young people who could have been eligible for Child in Need of Services petitions (CHINS), and those under dependency orders. In dependency orders, it usually states that a youth must comply with placement from DSHS. So when a youth runs away from a placement, the state can detain them for not complying with that order.
Youth who run away from foster care placements usually do so because they do not feel safe or do not feel they are being treated well. Foster care is a very hard situation to be in, and the fact that you are often faced with an ultimatum of staying somewhere you are not safe or happy, or being forced to spend time in detention, makes it that much harder.
"In 2014, Washington used the VCO exception 2,705 times, the most in the country."
When I was put into foster care, I was put into many homes full of strange faces, strange rules, and completely different environments in general. I did not feel safe at a number of these places, but one in particular stands out as being the most unsafe. Because of this I ran away. After being caught, I was taken to juvenile detention and put into another new environment, this time with locked steel doors, guards with handcuffs and pepper spray, and youth who were awaiting trial for actual crimes. I did not ask for this court order that made it possible to lock me up without committing an actual crime. I just wanted to feel safe.
In my opinion, detention does not help struggling youth in any way, especially ones detained under the VCO exception. Secure detention exposes a youth who is not criminally involved to a number of youth who are. This puts them at a much higher risk of committing crimes themselves.
It is time we stop using the VCO exception and look to better means of helping our troubled youth. The Tacoma Chapter of the Mockingbird Youth Network has been hard at work to bring this issue to light; they want to see this unethical practice stopped, and funds recycled towards family reunification services as a way to better serve struggling youth. We believe this will save the state money and lead to much better outcomes for our young people. It is time Washington does better for its youth!