Paul Daniels, the King County employee who oversaw the implementation of the nation's first respite center for teens accused of domestic violence, needed $44,000 to install a door.
"That was the hardest part," Daniels said, sighing at the heavy-duty, fire-rated slab of metal that wouldn't look out of place shielding a bank vault. But we weren't at the bank. We stood in a former jail wing at the King County Detention Center.
A couple of years ago, Daniels was tasked with converting this lockup to a space more closely resembling a living room. Maintenance workers knocked the locks off the cells. Three artists, including two youths, painted the Seattle skyline over the cold concrete bricks. Out went cafeteria tables and in came couches, recliners, and a washer and dryer.
The furnishings were funded from a pool of about $650,000 allocated by King County and the City of Seattle to launch Family Intervention and Respite Services (FIRS), a pilot diversion program that kicked off in 2016.
Juveniles come to the FIRS center fresh off a domestic-violence incident at home. Most often, a child hits his or her mother, but the center every so often admits a child for sibling-on-sibling violence. Kids who wind up here are welcome to leave at any time, but most stick around to eat snacks and take a shower. Families and social workers arrive to develop a safety plan. Connection to services follows.
Maybe a child and his or her parents needs to undergo functional family therapy? Or maybe alcohol screening would be enough? In some cases, inpatient options would be appropriate. Participants in FIRS completely bypass booking and prosecution. No charges. No jail time. No court.
The threat of prosecution, however, still proves a solid motivator for improvement, said Jimmy Hung, chair of juvenile services for King County. "The process is more, 'Hey, you hit your mom. You can't do that. How are we going to get you to stop hitting your mom? Is there something that's making you act out?'" Hung said. "The leverage becomes, if you can't bring the kid to stop doing this, then you bring them into the court system."
After working as a prosecutor for more than 15 years, Hung moved to the juvenile side of the system in 2013. Hung had familiarity with domestic violence, but not the way it typically played out in juvenile court. "You have parents calling 911, not because the child is committing a crime but because the parent is desperate for help," said Hung. "But the system treats it like a crime because they called 911."
Every step along the process, Hung noticed that family dynamics made for awkward moments in the traditional court system. Parents would call the cops on their kids but decline to pursue charges for fear of saddling their children with a criminal record.
Mothers legitimately scared for their safety would tell judges that they were fine with taking their kids home over a deeper fear: sounding like a bad mother. Defense attorneys mounted cases attacking a mother or father's parenting skills. "Their role ends up just driving a bigger wedge into the family," Hung said
On top of that, the cases rarely come to any sort of resolution. Along with Stephanie Trollen, legal services supervisor for King County's juvenile unit, Hung ran the numbers for 2013. Of 550 domestic-violence cases, only three ended with families getting evidence-based services. Most cases were dismissed.
An analysis of King County booking data by The Stranger found that domestic-violence-related assaults consistently rank high among the crimes that lead to juvenile detention. Thirteen percent of all bookings in 2016 were for domestic-violence-related assaults. In total, about 20 percent of bookings somehow involved domestic violence.
There had to be another way to deal with it. "There were a lot of people trapped in the only way they knew how to do things," Hung said. "They were almost blinded by how ineffective some of the strategies were."
Brainstorming with judges, lawyers, and court services providers followed. They came up with FIRS, a project not dissimilar to Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), the pre-booking program for adults accused of low-level drug and prostitution offenses. LEAD has become a national model. Since FIRS got off the ground in 2016, juvenile bookings for domestic-violence-related offense have dropped by 50 percent. (Researchers at the University of Washington are studying what impact the program may have on such offenses.)
Should the county seek to expand FIRS or launch other diversion programs charting a path outside the traditional court system, it would face funding obstacles. Washington State law currently opens state cash to juvenile diversion programs only if the participants reach some kind of resolution through the traditional court system—namely, convictions through guilty pleas. "Your legal status says what services can be dictated to you," Daniels explained. Simply put, Washington State doesn't make it easy for local governments to innovate in the realm of restorative justice.
But efforts in Olympia could pave a way forward. State representatives Ruth Kagi and Jake Fey, both Democrats, this year introduced a bill that would extend state funding for programs like FIRS, which don't require that children reach adjudication in their cases before enjoying the benefits of diversion.
During the most recent regular legislative session, the bill passed through the house but died in the senate.
When the Stranger news team visited the FIRS center in early May, we were greeted by sheets of easel paper taped to the walls. Participants had written in marker, "What does a healthy relationship mean to you?" Among the answers: Communication. Calmness. Talking about how good Frank Ocean is.
Three teenagers lounged on secondhand couches, watching a program about prisons in Russia. Daniels, incredulous, asked one of two administrators on duty that afternoon what on earth those kids were watching.
She responded, "It's a deterrent."
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