Discussion with Author David Ambroz

I’m sitting down with author and former foster child David Ambroz to discuss his memoir A Place Called Home. Thursday December 1st 7-8 PM at Elliot Bay Books on Capitol Hill in Seattle. 1521 10th Ave.

He describes homelessness, foster care, and the struggles his mom goes through. The two of us will talk a bit about how we might make the world better for kids in poverty.

My guess is that there will be a pile of books there that you can buy – it is a bookstore. A really, really good bookstore. One that I still wish was in Pioneer Square, but I get it why they moved.

You can get more detailed information on the event at https://bit.ly/3A3z0HW.

Eliminate Nasty Gas-Powered Leaf Blowers in Kirkland!

Gas powered leaf blowers are a plague. Their two-stroke engines produce more climate changing gases than a fleet of cars and their noise is damaging to the ears of both residents and the people that operate them.

For the best-selling commercial leaf blower, one hour of operation emits smog-forming pollution comparable to driving a 2017 Toyota Camry about 1100 miles. That’s like driving from Seattle to Pheonix or Bismark. [CA Air Resources Board]

The loudness of GLB sound at point of operation is especially concerning for the auditory and non-auditory health of workers and others regularly exposed in close proximity. [NIH Study]

Over 171 jurisdictions in 31 states have some type of restriction on the use of leaf blowers. Over 40 of those jurisdictions have banned the use of gas-powered leaf blowers altogether. Burlington, VT, Washington D.C., Portland, OR, and all of California have, or will in the next two years, ban gas blowers. Seattle is working on a ban.

The Kirkland City Council is considering taking action on this issue. if you live in Kirkland your voice will matter to them. If you don’t, they will probably just ignore you. You should lean on the city in which you live!

There are equity issues to consider in pursuing a sane policy, but they should not block or delay a ban. Please hold your city council responsible for taking action. 

For more info you can watch this short (3 minute) video from The Atlantic Monthly, one of the best magazines of the past century.

I recognize that the noise gas leaf blowers produce is a first-world problem. The climate changing emissions they produce affects all of us.

Members of the city council:

Toby Nixon <TNixon@kirklandwa.gov>;

Jay Arnold <JArnold@kirklandwa.gov>;

Neal Black <NBlack@kirklandwa.gov>;

Kelli Curtis <KCurtis@kirklandwa.gov>;

Amy Falcone <afalcone@kirklandwa.gov>;

Jon Pascal <JPascal@kirklandwa.gov>;

Penny Sweet <PSweet@kirklandwa.gov>

They need to hear from you!

NIH Study citation: Walker E, Banks JL. Characteristics of Lawn and Garden Equipment Sound: A Community Pilot Study. J Environ Toxicol Stud. 2017 Dec;1(1):10.16966/2576-6430.106. doi: 10.16966/2576-6430.106. Epub 2017 Nov 3. PMID: 31448365; PMCID: PMC6707732.

Black History Month

February is Black History Month. As a late-stage boomer, I got almost none of this history in school, despite growing up in a majority Black city (Philadelphia) and a big academic focus on American History in my youth. I’ve tried to make up for this appalling lack of knowledge in the past few years by reading some excellent writing, and I’d like to pass some of these recommendations on to all of you. I did not read these all in one month or even a single year. All are incredibly valuable.

It’s our responsibility as human beings in the world to help heal the world. For us at DCYF, it’s a core part of our agency mission. Race has been used to divide us in America for hundreds of years. Understanding what happened is why we read history, and good history gets deep into the underlying causes of what happened. These are great history books.

Part of our expectations for all employees is that they do some personal work that makes sense to them to understand racial equity and social justice in America. Reading any of these would be a good start. I like paper books (late-stage boomer, remember), but there are videos and podcasts to learn from as well.

The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee

The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee is the current RESJ book club book. It’s awesome. The author’s main thesis is that white communities have historically blocked investments that would benefit their own community members rather than share the resource. A particular example in the book reminded me of something from my childhood, and I had an amazing conversation with my mother about the O’Connor Pool, about two blocks from my house in Philadelphia. The pool was located inside an Irish community and close to the border of a Black community and a more mixed gentrifying center city neighborhood where we lived. The locals would throw broken glass into the pool if any members of the Black community (kids I went to school with, for example) showed up to swim. The pool had to be closed to everyone to clean the bottom. This wasn’t the deep South, it was South Philadelphia in the 1960s. Makes McGhee’s point.

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson is the epic story of America’s great migration when six million African Americans moved from the rural South to the North for both opportunity and to try to escape persecution. This book won a Pulitzer prize for the author, and she deserved it. An amazing book that weaves together the experience of actual people with historical statistics and, you know, history. I loved it. It made me understand why some things were the way they were in Philly during my childhood. The story is good too. It was a book I read in only a few sittings, even though it is quite thick. I got sucked in by the power of both the story and the language.

Some of the images of incredible degradation in Florida stick with me today, several years after I first read the book. Black people in the South faced daily humiliation, plus incredible danger from lynching and other extreme violence from angry white mobs. The George Floyd or Ahmaud Arbery murders are the modern manifestation of lynching – extrajudicial killings without due process. The NAACP estimates that almost 4,800 people were lynched from 1882 to 1968.

Caste, Isabel Wilkerson’s second book, is a more detailed look at how race in America is much like a caste system, with strict hierarchical levels and the dysfunction associated with it. As with all good writing, there are stories about real people, but this book is a more challenging read, and is more structural and analytical than The Warmth of Other Suns. I found it more important to my thinking, and less like a walk through history I hadn’t known.

This book made me think. It has given me a framework to organize my thinking about why the powerful culture does what it does. It’s worth the work to read. Her use of language is exquisite, and that alone is enough pleasure to recommend the book for.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

DCYF is responsible for a small part of the youth incarceration system in Washington, and understanding how law enforcement works and why it is set up the way it is seemed like an important exercise to me when I took the job as DCYF Secretary. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander is the hardest book to read on this short list. Hard to read, but it’s amazing. The core argument is that white populations in America created a series of alternatives to slavery once that was eliminated in the Civil War. Formalizing Jim Crow laws was one step, and using law enforcement to put a “felon” tag on Black people allowed the same kind of control of the body and economic exploitation that slavery had. Formal Jim Crow was replaced with the “war on drugs” and other criminalization of Black people to deny economic growth and particularly to deny political power over white people. Think about “legal financial obligations” as another – one reason we are working to eliminate the parent pay statute in JR this year. Labeling someone (vastly disproportionately Black men) as a felon allows the same discrimination that the civil rights experience in the 60s made illegal to do when based explicitly on race. Alexander makes the case.

She pummels you with relentless data and stories that are painful to read. It is impossible to argue against her with a straight face, though many people try. When you are done, you have a renewed commitment to our work preparing the young people we care for to succeed in the world, and more importantly, preventing many of the traumas that our young people suffer from. Alexander’s argument is that that’s not enough, and we have to change the world at an even deeper level. I agree with her. You will too, after you read this.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me is a short book written as a letter to his son. It’s a book I didn’t have to write to my son because he doesn’t have to experience the world the way young Black men do. I never had to have “the talk” with him about interacting with the police. You can’t read this one quickly; you have to savor the language. You have to think about what he is saying and how it would impact his child (and yours.) This is a deeply intellectual and very, very strong piece written by an expert. I remember being excited to get the book after reading many of his articles in The Atlantic Monthly. I wasn’t disappointed. Coates is also the author of many of the Black Panther comic books published by Marvel Comics. I admit that these are a guilty pleasure, as I’m sure it was for him to write them. Maybe in my next life I can be a writer as powerful as Coates and get to write comic books.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

To read more about the unjust incarceration of Black men, you can read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Or, you can watch the movie, which is also terrific. I listened to it as a book on tape (actually, a book on phone, but that’s the modern world…) read by the author while I commuted to and from Olympia. It’s the story of how good lawyers can create justice in the world. It’s uplifting. The space for creating justice is large, as you will have learned from some of the earlier books on this list, with many, many Black men sitting unjustly on death row. The work Stevenson does is one of the core reasons many states have repealed their death sentence laws in recent years. My conviction against the death penalty is a little deeper than the argument here. As a lifelong Quaker, I have the simple belief that there is that of God in every person and that it is not for us to take the life of one of them. The unjustness of the criminal justice system is another reason, if you need one.

March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

March, by the civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis is a set of three graphic novels exploring the civil rights era with a power that words alone can’t convey. A picture is worth a thousand words, and there are three books worth of them here. You could get a middle school kid interested in the civil rights era with this collection, it’s so powerful. If you know any middle school kids, you understand how powerful these must be. I was driving home from Olympia one day and heard on the radio that Rep. Lewis was speaking at the Bellevue Library, of all places. I screeched off the road and worked my way into a packed room where he was doing the book tour for these books. The ability to shake his hand and get an autographed set of these is an experience I will treasure my whole life.

You don’t understand the Edmund Pettis Bridge until you’ve experienced it in graphic form. It makes your heart hurt.

Any of these books are great. You’d enjoy reading any or all of them. More importantly, you will be a person who thinks more deeply about the world and your place in it.

Ross Hunter | Secretary
Department of Children, Youth, and Families

Office 360-407-7909 | Cell 360-515-8972
Pronouns: he/him/his

Update on nondiscrimination protections for children and youth in Washington

On February 2nd I wrote about the former president’s HHS agency leaders filing a rule that removed protections for LGBTQ children and youth and how Washington was not affected, as we had strong state protections. The order has now been blocked by both the Biden administration and the courts.

From the American Public Human Services organization (APHSA.ORG)

HHS Postpones Regulation Repealing Nondiscrimination Protections

In response to a lawsuit filed by a foster youth organization and LGBTQ+ advocacy groups, a court order issued to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) immediately postponed the effective date of the rule. The rule would have eliminated protections preventing service providers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, and other characteristics when providing HHS grant-funded services. The Biden Administration has stated that the Trump-era policy is now under review. President Biden issued an executive order on January 20 to extend existing federal nondiscrimination protections to LGBTQ+ people.

View Court Order
Read More on LGBTQ+ Executive Order

Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud

I get regular emails from the Children’s Bureau with a collection of news clips about child welfare across the country. Some are helpful, some random, some totally uninteresting. At the top of the email today is a story out of Florida about the difficulty people have in adopting newborns.  (Full disclosure – I didn’t watch the video.)

FL: Hope and frustration: For families looking to adopt newborns, the journey isn’t easy (Includes video)
Pensacola News Journal – February 15, 2021
The Pentons are one of thousands of U.S. families who have an adoptive child — at least one out of every 25 families with children have an adopted child, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But adoption attorneys and groups say that over the past several years, adoptions — especially of newborns — have been increasingly difficult to facilitate.

They describe lots of anecdotal reasons that might make it harder to adopt a newborn baby. It’s heartbreaking that people who want to be parents and cannot struggle to find children to adopt. While I feel for these families, the world is probably a lot better off if fewer teens become pregnant in an unplanned way. The chart above is one of the incredible good news stories in social services. It shows the teen pregnancy rate from 2007 to 2016. I got it from KIDS COUNT. I can’t get a longer time period from this chart than the ten years you see here, but this is not a new trend – teen pregnancies have been declining since the 80s and the widespread availability of birth control.

The rate of teen pregnancy (24 out of every 1000 girls) is less than half of what it was 10 years before. The article I linked to just goes to show that every silver lining has a cloud.

WA Won’t Discriminate

Right before the change in administration earlier this month the federal Health and Human Services agency repealed a rule that prohibited government contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, (SOGIE) or on religion. Washington does not allow this kind of discrimination today, and won’t allow it in the future.

The rule changes say that states can allow private agencies that use federal and state taxpayer dollars to discriminate against potential foster families based on a parent’s sexual orientation or gender identity and expression or their religion. A state could allow an agency to serve only members of a single religion, or to not serve LGBTQ+ couples.

The rules would also allow states to let providers discriminate against LGBTQ+ youth by refusing them services or kicking them out of a homeless shelter, or to allow foster parents to kick out an LGBTQ+ child or youth.

The terrible stories we hear from young people who were kicked out of the house when they came out and their struggles to survive as a person experiencing homelessness, let alone their struggles to get an education, training for gainful employment, housing, or any of the other things we take for granted for our own children are heartbreaking, and often result in young adults who face serious challenges.

We would not allow a foster family to physically abuse a child, even if their religion condoned the behavior. Why would we allow them to inflict even more grievous emotional and psychological harm?

Washington requires potential foster parents to accept ALL children and youth for who they are. We do not grant licenses to families that are unwilling to be accepting of a child or youth who explores their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression and comes out while in their care. The odds are too big to allow this to happen – multiple credible studies say that one in every three or four children in foster care may identify as LGBTQ+, and the rejection they would experience from what might be the first stable home they’ve ever had would be devastating.

As an agency, we already struggle to recruit families who are willing to open their homes to teens. Our focus is to increase our capacity to provide welcoming and affirming homes to ALL of the children and youth we serve. The last thing we want to do is place additional barriers in front of willing, loving families. In the same way we support LGBTQ+ children and youth, we also support same sex couples who want to be foster parents. Can you imagine going to an agency to apply to be a foster parent, only to be told that you can’t care for a child because of the adult you love?

The new Biden administration should repeal these changes forthwith. Here in our Washington we will continue to prohibit this kind of discrimination regardless of what happens in the other Washington.

Improving Education for Incarcerated Youth

The laws that define education funding in Washington are complex. You know this if you have been reading this blog for a long time – I spent a good part of the last two decades working on bringing it into the modern world. You can spend hours reading overly long posts about that work here.

One small part of it was not updated when we fixed the system to comply with the McCleary decision – the education offered to youth who are incarcerated, either in the state system DCYF runs called “Juvenile Rehabilitation” or in the county-run detention centers. In 2018 about 5,700 youth were admitted to a local detention center.

Fixing this system is a racial justice issue. The youth “served” by the juvenile incarceration system are disproportionately youth of color. Graduation rates for this population are abysmally low – 8% for youth who have spent more than 30 days in detention. The system provides inadequate instruction in a model designed, IMHO, more for the convenience of school districts than the effectiveness of the education delivered.

I have been appointed to serve on a task force charged with redesigning this system. We had our first meeting a week ago. Watch it here. You can read information about the meetings here. Prior to the first meeting I sent the following letter to the other members of the task force.

Dear Task Force Member:

As we start the work of the Institutional Education task force I think we should “begin with the end in mind.” Youth in institutions have the same rights under “Basic Education” as other youth. These are laid out in RCW 28A.150.200.

The legislature defines the program of basic education under this chapter as that which is necessary to provide the opportunity to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to meet the state-established high school graduation requirements that are intended to allow students to have the opportunity to graduate with a meaningful diploma that prepares them for postsecondary education, gainful employment, and citizenship.RCW 28A.150.200(2)

We need to agree that the goal of this task force is to design a program of education that is likely to give students the opportunity to graduate with a meaningful diploma. It’s not just to do a tweak to the funding formulas. What we have today doesn’t work for the students we serve. It wouldn’t work for anyone, but it particularly doesn’t work for at-risk youth.

The kids served in institutions (overwhelmingly part of the incarceration system) are overwhelmingly children of color. This is a result of 400 years of racism in America, a racism that is buried deeply into our culture in ways that people are only beginning to see. If we care about walking the talk on removing racial bias in the world, we need to focus on these young people.

Among students with a history of detention, only 16% graduated from high school, compared to 72% of students who had not been detained. Among youth who spent more than a month in juvenile detention, only 8% graduated. ERDC found similar inequitable outcomes for high-school dropout rates and postsecondary enrollment.[2]

A 2012 report by DSHS RDA found that only 14% of 9th graders in JR had graduated from high school in the following six years, compared to a 79% extended graduation rate for the general population at that same time.[3]

These statistics are connected, as youth who gradate and earn post-secondary certification rarely recidivate.

These youths often attend programs put on by multiple school districts, all with different curricula and graduation requirements, and different and unconnected student information systems. For foster children (and 40% of JR youth have been in the foster system[4],) every placement change results in the loss of 4-6 months of school attainment. They never connect to a single adult who cares about them and pushes them to succeed in school.

Most county detention facilities are not set up for long-term residency. The length of stay for a particular youth might be as long as two years in such a facility. They are unlikely to experience any education success, and if they do not we will see them back in the incarceration system.

Young people who are incarcerated at JR facilities have usually had extensive experience with this pipeline, and uniformly complain that the work is not challenging, and that the system does not seem to care if the education they receive leads anywhere.

It is really, really difficult to organize the data about young people involved with the incarceration system. OSPI does not break out information about these young people, even though we have the data scattered in multiple databases. Most of my information comes from a handful of reports you will be able to read during this task force. One key suggestion I make is that we require regular reporting on the educational experience of these youths, as we will not get anywhere solving a problem we cannot measure. The agency will make recommendations on what data we would like to have included in regular educational outcome reporting.

The only way this effort will produce the change we need to see in the world is if it focuses on ensuring that children in institutional settings receive an education that gives them a REALISTIC opportunity to be successful in the world. The current system is dysfunctional. We should do something different.

When a small group of us in the Legislature redesigned the school funding system over a decade ago we created the concept of the “model school” as a way to anchor the cost structure in what people could understand as a functional design for a school. We fought hard about what was the entitlement – was it just enough school that highly prepared students with strong families and minimal trauma in their lives could be successful, or did we have a more inclusive view of who should be served? The paragraph from RCW 28A at the beginning of this letter was the result of that discussion – there was bipartisan agreement that there needed to be enough resources to give every child a fair opportunity. The model school helped people see that some schools would need more funding for remediation than others, and the formulas reflect that.

Children involved in the juvenile incarceration system have complex lives, have usually experienced much trauma, and do not have the level of support young people born closer to opportunity experience. If we want to be successful in designing a funding system I would urge the task force to take a similar approach – focus on designing a model that will work, then figuring out what that will cost. That’s what these young people are entitled to, and that’s what we need to do if we want to end cyclical experiences with the incarceration system.

We should at least address:

  • Consistent graduation requirements, curriculum, and student information. A youth’s current credits should not be lost when changing school districts, nor should it take months for their records to catch up to them.
  • Expectations. We should expect and support young people in achieving the goals in the basic education act.
  • Consistent adult relationships. Young people at the deep end of the pool would benefit from a consistent education coach or advocate.

I would urge the group to think big. Do we really need to have education provided by the school district a facility is in? What has worked in other states and other countries? The long-term gains in outcomes for children and reduction in generational trauma can be stunning.


Ross Hunter


[1] RCW 28A.150.200(2)

[2] Education Outcome Characteristics of Students Admitted to Juvenile Detention, ERDC 2019, https://erdc.wa.gov/publications/justice-program-outcomes/education-outcome-characteristics-students-admitted-juvenile

[3] https://www.dshs.wa.gov/sites/default/files/rda/reports/research-11-181.pdf

[4] Blue Ribbon Commission Report prior to creation of the agency. https://www.governor.wa.gov/sites/default/files/documents/BRCCF_FinalReport.pdf

The Murder of George Floyd

I sent the following message out to DCYF staff earlier this week. Our equity and diversity team helped me avoid blind spots I may have, but any errors are mine. We have work to do as an agency and as a society.

I want to begin by acknowledging the range of emotions you may be feeling, including anger, confusion, grief, disbelief, and numbness evoked by recent events. By now we’ve all seen the brutal murder of George Floyd by white police officers in Minneapolis, officers who are supposed to ‘serve and protect” the community. We’ve also experienced the painful loss of Ahmaud Arbery, Breona Taylor, and far too many Black lives, just in the past few months.

George Floyd was somebody’s beloved father, brother, and son. A byproduct of our toxic culture and environment of racism and white supremacy is dehumanization and insensitivity towards the suffering of Black bodies. Until we all feel the pain of these losses and our systems respond accordingly with just policies and practices that protect the health and well-being of all communities, we communicate resoundingly that Black lives matter less. 

This brutality is deeply rooted in American history and culture. Minneapolis City Council Vice President, Andrea Jenkins said it perfectly when she declared racism as a public health emergency:

“Until we name this virus, the disease that has infected America for the past 400 years, we will never, ever resolve this issue. To those who say bringing up racism is racist in and of itself, I say to you, if you don’t call cancer what it is, you can never cure that disease.”

I’m a living legacy and beneficiary of the amount of resources America has put into curing cancer. The disease of racism harms us all, and it requires a deeper, stronger response. Nobody loses power if cancer is cured, but unfortunately that’s not the case with racism.  Digging it out, root and branch, will require facing our complicity in the creating the current racialized outcomes, and a willingness to put in the personal and collective work to make change happen.

Our agency, as with many public institutions, has a long way to go to live into our commitment to advance racial equity and social justice.

  • Black children are expelled from pre-k at rates vastly exceeding their white counterparts. This is 3 and 4 year olds.
  • Racial disparities get worse at almost every level of the child welfare system, with Black and Indigenous children being removed from their families at vastly higher rates than their white counterparts.
  • Youth of color are vastly over-represented in our JR facilities.

We have to call this problem out and focus on our everyday actions that perpetuate it. We are starting with a shared  framework and approach to taking responsibility for eliminating racial and ethnic disparities and disproportionate impacts on the Black, Indigenous and People of Color we serve. We are also dedicating significant attention to HOW we go about our work, eliminating the implicit bias that seeps into everything we do.

Many of us are struggling with how to respond to the murder of Mr. Floyd. I can’t even imagine how our Black community members must be feeling in this moment. I can only urge two threads for everyone – caring for the world and caring for yourself.

Only when we stand with one another and engage in this uncomfortable, but necessary work, can we all live in an equitable community where all children, youth, and families are thriving. DCYF will be organizing virtual spaces for you to connect and reflect with one another in the coming days. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a few resources that I hope will help you with taking care of yourself, your own learning journey, or finding ways to take action.

Missing from Care

In which Ross wanders around the U District trying to find a 14-year-old who is “missing from care.” Writing good policy is hard and I don’t think it works if you don’t try hard to understand the reality of what you are trying to do.

Many legislators are working on a bill (SB 5290) that makes pretty significant changes to the ability of judges to place children and youth in detention for non-criminal activities, like running away from a foster home.  The agency supports this bill, but has some serious concerns that will need to be addressed before it’s ready to be made into law.

In late February I spent the day with one of DCYF’s missing from care (MFC) locators. We have 9 people statewide tasked with finding youth who are “missing” from care. Typically, this means that they’ve run away from a placement, but there are other scenarios we pursue as well. This was an emotionally challenging experience. Nina Shapiro, a reporter from the Seattle Times went with us. Her article on the situation is here, and I found it to be well-balanced.

Writing about this is hard because I have to be cautious of the privacy rights of the youth involved and if I explain too many details of the demographics of the youth in question I run the risk of identifying her. It’s also just hard to write about.

We spent the whole day looking for two youth. We found neither, which is depressingly common, though the locator lit up when I asked him how many kids he’s found in the last 8 years of the work – “hundreds” was his answer.

We spent most of the day looking for a 14-year-old girl who has a history of running from placements. For context, 300-400 children, mostly older youth, run away from a foster care placement every year. The agency just released a research report providing some descriptive statistics about children who run. This was part of our ongoing effort to comply with the settlement in the Braam case (or here) from two decades ago. More on this later.

First, we visited the University District Youth Center (UDYC). UDYC provides drop-in and basic needs services, case management, and hosts a Seattle Public Schools Interagency Academy for homeless and at-risk youth in the University District. This was a cool place for youth to do laundry, get a bite to eat, talk to other people in the dry, and engage in some cool looking art and other creative pursuits and connect to key services. We had a great conversation with the program manager, but no direct leads.

We visited a drugstore (legal) on the Ave and left a flyer with the staff. I bought cashews, a granola bar and a diet soda for lunch. Made me think about the ease with which I could acquire food, and that it would have been easy for me to skip lunch, though I might have been a bit hangry later. This is not the experience homeless youth have.

We tried the library, often a hangout for youth on rainy days, but no luck. They wouldn’t take a flyer.

Next we followed a tip and talked to all the people in “tents” in a specific area. Living in a tent in February in Seattle is miserable, especially since many of the “tents” were really constructions of tarps and collected materials. Several of the folks we talked to had had contact with the particular girl, and all were concerned that someone that young would be out on the streets. It’s also a little dangerous for our social workers, and they behave very carefully as a result.

The tent in the photo wasn’t occupied. I took it mostly to create a memory of the difficult situation homeless people are in. Why do we have so many people living in these conditions? Probably beyond this short essay, but we have to do better as a society in providing treatment for obvious mental health and substance abuse issues so that our kids aren’t living in desperate situations.

A few more spots to look in with no luck and we were out of time for the day. I think our MFC locator could have been more productive without me tagging along, but I’ll bet there are a lot of days like this.

Looking for this child was a searing emotional experience. It must be terrifying to be in a place as a 14-year-old where living on the street feels better to you than the foster placement you were in.

Had we found her our options would have been somewhat limited. Our MFC locator can offer some options that may or may not have been appealing to her:

  • An opportunity to talk to her caseworker in the office or another “safe” location. They may have a relationship that we can make work.
  • Maybe we could offer her a better placement for her. There might be a rational reason she ran away from care. The locator can talk to the caseworker and other resources about what might be available to her.

That’s about it. He’s not a police officer and has no ability to detain her. The youth who run regularly know this. “87.5% of all runs from out-of-home placements occur due to repeat runners.”[1]

When we have a missing youth and we can’t find them quickly we will ask the court that supervises their case to put out a “warrant.” This puts police officers on notice that we’re looking for the youth. They have more options than our locators do, including the ability to bring the youth to a secure place to figure out a safe plan.

Risks Faced by Homeless Teenagers

Increased likelihood of high-risk behaviors, including engaging in unprotected sex, having multiple sex partners and participating in intravenous drug use.  Youth who engage in these high-risk behaviors are more likely to remain homeless and be more resistant to change. 

Greater risk of severe anxiety and depression, suicide, poor health and nutrition, and low self-esteem.

Increased likelihood of exchanging sex for food, clothing and shelter (also known as “survival sex”) or dealing drugs to meet basic needs. Forty percent of African American youth and 36 percent of Caucasian youth who experienced homelessness or life on the street sold drugs, primarily marijuana, for money.

Difficulty attending school due to lack of required enrollment records (such as immunization and medical records and proof of residence) as well as lack of access to transportation to and from school.  As a result, homeless youth often have a hard time getting an education and supporting themselves financially.

Homeless gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or questioning (GLBTQ) youth are more likely to exchange sex for housing or shelter, are abused more often at homeless shelters (especially adult shelters), and experience more violence on the streets than homeless heterosexual youth.

Source: National Conference of State Legislators

Let’s start with the observation that it’s not safe for children to be living on the streets. The risks of drug use, being a victim of violent crime, and being commercially sexually exploited are very real, and we are all concerned about these young people. Youth who are in foster care are in the care of the state and we’re responsible for ensuring, at a minimum, that they have a safe place to sleep.

Given the national data in the sidebar, very few police officers are going to think that they should let a 14-year-old go back to being homeless. The problem is that the officers don’t have a lot of good options. They could

  • Do the same thing the locator tried – get the youth to talk to the caseworker.
  • Take her to a safe, but temporary location where she could get connected to the caseworker and find a better placement. This could be a teen drop-in center like the UDYC, a library, a coffee shop, etc.
  • Take her to a safe place with overnight capacity. This could be a Hope Center, a Crisis Residential Center, etc. It could be a program run by a county. For example, King County runs the FIRS program, providing an alternative to juvenile detention to youth involved in domestic violence cases.
  • Take her to juvenile detention. This is the current default in most cases. Here the youth who have not committed a crime are mixed with a juvenile offender population. It’s always open, there is always a bed, and the officer and the judge feel like it’s safe for the youth.

Unfortunately, we have lots of evidence that being in juvenile detention creates additional trauma[2] for the youth, and that being exposed to a population more inclined to delinquency often results in new criminal activity by the youth.[3]

It’s a hard tradeoff for the officer or our social worker. Placing a child who has run many times before or who has other significant risk factors in a non-secure placement is likely to result in the child running again.[4] The officer knows the risks the child is exposed to. Right now the warrant isn’t clear about what should happen, so the officer takes the lowest risk option, even if it isn’t necessary to have a secure setting for that particular youth.

I’ve had several conversations with child welfare experts who say that we are one of very few states that puts this much effort into searching for youth who run from care. It’s frustrating for many of the reasons outlined above – there are very few options that work out well, so many other jurisdictions just wait for the youth to return to their placement or wind up as a statistic. This is not a good path.

The bill affects many adolescents who are not in the foster care system. In many cases youth running from a foster care placement have the same needs as other homeless youth, and face the same risks on the street. We do not have the same legal authority or responsibility, but should develop a solution that is flexible enough to work with all of them.

The Missing from Care report, as well as most national research on this topic, points to the more complex behavioral health needs of the youth who repeatedly run from placements. We are concerned about behavior of these youths that place them at extreme risk of harm. We have work to do to either find placements that work better for these youth or prevent the trauma in the first place. Even if we make great progress in these areas we will still have kids who run, and will need a better strategy.

Of course, we also have court involvement in this issue here in Washington. In late January we came to final agreement with the plaintiffs in the “Braam” case, and we now have some new outcome targets that need to be met in this area.

The Braam vs. State of Washington lawsuit was filed in August 1998 on behalf of a class of foster children who had three or more placements while in foster care. The lawsuit alleged that the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) did not provide constitutionally required care to foster children.

Under the Settlement Agreement the Department agreed to achieve 21 individual outcomes. These outcomes addressed a number of areas including monthly visits, sibling placement, sibling visits, annual mental health and substance abuse screens, and youth missing from care.

As of 2017 the Department had achieved compliance or outcomes were no longer enforceable for all but two of these 21 outcomes. The two remaining judicially enforced outcomes both related to foster children who are missing from care. They measured the frequency of foster youth running from care and the median number of days youth are on the run. Court cases shouldn’t go on for decades, and in the last month we came to an agreement on three substitute missing from care outcomes with the plaintiffs. These measures are risk-adjusted, are actually measurable, and are hopefully achievable. Under these new outcomes, we agreed to: 1) reduce the percent of youth with a first run event by 20% from baseline; 2) reduce the percent of youth with a subsequent run event by 20% from baseline; and 3) reduce the mean length of run events by 10% from baseline.

Conclusion to a blog post that is much too long:

We are working with the bill sponsors, the Juvenile Court system, youth advocates, and the Office of Homeless Youth to come up with language that makes sense, works towards eliminating the use of detention where there are safe alternatives for youth, and can practically be implemented.

In the short run, the agency will make some changes to our internal policy to stop using detention in circumstances where it is not warranted. I’ll write more about this as we figure out detailed proposals and the process to roll them out. (There are 40 police agencies in King County alone…)

None of this will work if there are not safe, secure alternative places for youth to stay that are not juvenile detention. Ideally these would be available everywhere in the state. Based on the data we think we could make a system work that had options in the counties that have the most youth who run from care. We would recommend King, Pierce, Spokane, and Yakima counties, with a convenient location in each. 

These facilities will need to be staffed to provide trauma-informed assessment and support for youth. They need to be therapeutic, not correctional.

We also believe that some investments in providing permanent placement alternatives for older youth like the Responsible Living Skills program may be a better fit than some foster or group home settings, and may reduce the likelihood of youth running from a placement.


Missing from Care Analysis: Part 1. Page 11. WA State Department of Children, Youth, and Families, Office of Innovation, Alignment, and Accountability, Olympia. Retrieved from https://www.dcyf.wa.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/reports/2019_MissingfromCareAnalysis.pdf

[2] Richard A. Mendel (2011), No Place for Kids: The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration, Annie E. Casey Foundation, pp. 5-12.

[3] Lipsey, M. (2009). The Primary Factors that Characterize Effective Interventions with Juvenile Offenders: A Meta-Analytic Overview. Victims & Offenders, 4(2), 124-147.

[4] “Once a child has run from care there is a 60.1% chance they will run again.” Missing from Care Analysis, Page 11