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Wash. Law Hailed as New Tool To Rescue Runaway Children

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A new law in Washington State gives police and parents greater authority to find and rescue runaway children in a state that has become known as a haven for young people fleeing their homes.

Gov. Mike Lowry signed legislation this month that allows authorities to remove runaways with drug, alcohol, or mental-health problems from the streets and hold them for up to five days without court approval.

In a ceremony attended by dozens of parents of lost children, the Democratic Governor said the law will strengthen the ability of parents to recover their children. It replaces a more lenient state law that gave parents few rights to retrieve their children and earned Washington a national reputation as a refuge for runaways, said Martin Munguia, the Governor's spokesman.

Statistics are not compiled on the number of runaway children in Washington State or the United States, law-enforcement officials said.

The 1977 state law penalized parents--in some cases charging them with kidnapping--if they forcibly retrieved runaways who were more than 13 years old. At the time, its sponsors championed the measure as a children's-rights bill that would protect young people from abusive parents.

But parents' groups that lobbied for the new law said the 1977 law has kept well-meaning parents from protecting their children.

The 'Becca Bill'

The new measure was nicknamed the "Becca bill," for an 11-year-old Tacoma girl who ran away in 1991 and was murdered two years later after repeated attempts by her family to bring her home.

Legislators who supported the measure hope it will prevent such tragedies. The new law takes effect on July 15.

"This is definitely a step in the right direction," said Rep. Peggy Johnson, a Republican who strongly supported the measure.

"We can't have our kids living under bridges or in cardboard boxes, and we can't strip parents of their rights," she said.

Under the law, police will have the power to detain runaways who appear to have drug, alcohol, or mental-health problems. During the maximum five days' detention, a child could undergo psychiatric evaluation and receive counseling and treatment if needed.

The law also gives parents broader authority to have a child who has run away committed to a mental-health or drug-treatment facility without the child's consent.

Going Underground?

School districts must monitor truancy and inform parents if a student has five or more unexcused absences, the law says. It allows a judge to order a student to attend school and to send children who fail to comply with such an order to a juvenile-detention center for up to two weeks.

Some civil-liberties groups and advocates for young people, however, say the law tramples on children's rights. They worry that young people will respond by "going underground" and avoiding shelters for fear of being caught.

But, Mr. Munguia, the Governor's spokesman, said the law preserves a runaway youth's freedoms.

"You can't simply lock up a kid because they aren't getting along with their parents," he said. A child must have a chemical dependency or a mental-health problem to be detained, he said.

But Rep. Mike Carrell, a sponsor of the law, charged that the final version of it is too weak. Governor Lowry vetoed the toughest sections of the measure before he signed it, including one that would have allowed a judge to keep a chronic runaway in custody for up to six months.

"We have not delivered on our promise to the people of Washington," said Mr. Carrell, a Republican. "More kids will be safe, but kids will still die."

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