Home News Center Washington Eliminates VCO-Takes Step Closer to Keeping Youth Out of Detention

Washington Eliminates VCO-Takes Step Closer to Keeping Youth Out of Detention

December 20, 2019
Courtney M. McSwain

In Washington State, legislators
moved to phase out the use of  the valid court order exception (VCO) that allows judges to place youth in detention for noncriminal behavior. Advocates who helped pass the bill, including NJJN member TeamChild, see it as part of a bigger opportunity for the state to redefine how youth access support services without requiring court involvement. 

Efforts to get rid of Washington state’s over reliance on detention for youth with noncriminal status offenses have been ongoing for 20 years. However, in 2019, a youth-led effort by the Mockingbird Society – an advocacy organization that works to improve the foster care system – gave the issue much-needed momentum. 

“The Mockingbird Society’s youth alumni network picked ending the use of detention for noncriminal status offenses as their top legislative priority and we fully got behind them,” said Anne Lee, Executive Director of TeamChild

On their part, TeamChild worked behind the scenes to educate judges about the court processes and the ineffectiveness of detention on addressing the underlying needs of youth who are in court for non-criminal matters. 

“The biggest opposition came from the courts and judges who felt very strongly about holding onto the VCO exception as a tool that they didn’t want taken away from them,” Lee said. “Our state has really good data and research showing that using detention doesn’t reduce truancy or effectively deal with the issues young people are having with family conflicts or running away from foster care placements – some of the main reasons judges were using the exception to detain youth. So, it was important for us to dialogue with judges around how it all worked and try to get them on board with eliminating the use of detention and instead build more effective community-based options for addressing the needs of children, youth and families.” 

As a result of TeamChild’s education efforts, the Minority and Justice Commission provided a letter in support of phasing out the use of the VCO to detain youth and also helped highlight the inequities inherent in the youth justice system. 

The VCO’s elimination will be phased in beginning July 1, 2020, and youth justice advocates hope to see an immediate increase in the use of community-based strategies supporting young people well before they become involved with the courts. Mostly, Lee sees broader hope in the bill’s passage, which comes alongside the creation of a new state agency, the Department of Children Youth and Families (DCYF). DCYF is slated to take on responsibility for child welfare, early learning and oversight of youth facilities from the state’s Department of Social and Health Services. 

The DCYF creates a tremendous opportunity to redefine when and how kids and families can get help,” Lee said. “This new agency’s responsibilities cover youth detention / rehabilitation as well as prevention programs that can be used in a diversionary way, so we hope that signals a realignment of goals around keeping children out of court altogether.” 

Looking to next year, TeamChild will continue to monitor the implementation of the phasing out of detention for status offenders as well as additional legislation passed in 2019 around ensuring youth released from systems of care - such as foster care, a youth detention facility or behavioral health hospital - are not released into homelessness. 

To learn more about TeamChild visit their website, Facebook and Twitter pages.   


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