Stop the Jail, But Also Stop the Racist and Punitive Family Court System

by S. Annie Chung

Over the past six years, since voters in King County passed a tax levy to pay for a new “Youth and Family Services Center,” opposition has been steadily and relentlessly growing. Hundreds of organizations and countless community members have been part of the No New Youth Jail campaign. As pressure mounts to stop construction, I want to make sure people are thinking not only about the youth jail the County continues to build this very minute, but also about the court facility that is part of the same construction project.

Many people can see the harm in jailing young people in a country that already disproportionately targets and punishes youth of color on a daily basis, for small offenses such as running away, getting into a fight, or other behaviors that could be dealt with by properly resourced parents and community. But many probably do not know that the County’s family courts are just as racist and punitive. We should not be investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the new jail or the new court building. Both should be seen for what they are — cruel investments in the architecture of trauma, racism, and family separation.

I have spent my career representing children and families targeted by the child welfare system. Around the country, and right here in Washington, Black and Indigenous families are targeted at higher rates for separation by the current system. They are investigated by child protective services more often, their kids are taken away more often, and they spend more time in foster care placements.

Stereotypes, along with the poverty and criminalization these families face, are all factors that contribute to sustained systemic oppression.

According to the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, “Data indicate that young people who are transitioning from foster care without the needed network of support experience very poor outcomes at a much higher rate than their peers in the general population.”

Studies show that youth who enter the child welfare system often experience traumatic outcomes: a higher likelihood of experiencing homelessness, abusing substances, being sexually abused, not finishing school, and being criminalized. That criminalization starts for many while they are in foster care.

Under current rules, King County’s foster youth can be locked up in jail for up to seven days, even if they committed no crime, simply for running away from their foster care placement. Many youth run away from abusive foster care environments and end up having to live in the streets, experiencing long-term homelessness. As a result, the criminal justice system criminalizes them for all the things people are criminalized for in our society: sleeping outside, panhandling, public urination, and other “crimes” of poverty. The entire “child welfare” system is a primary entryway for youth to enter the judicial system. It’s a foster care to prison pipeline.  

Many of my clients have ended up in juvenile detention (a more palatable term for youth jail) because social workers from the Department of Social and Health Services call law enforcement when they can’t get a child to follow their directions. Once, DSHS called the police on my client’s five-year-old child when she refused to get in a car transporting her back to her foster home after a visit with her family.

DSHS has also called the police repeatedly on my 12-year-old client for refusing to get in a car, refusing to get out of bed, refusing to leave the hotel the youth had to sleep in because they didn’t have placement for him, refusing to go to school, and staying up all night. I watched this child, who entered the system as a book-lover with no history of criminalization become someone who spent two stints in juvenile prison for offenses related to being in foster care. At one of his criminal court hearings,the DSHS social worker requested he be held in juvenile prison because DSHS did not have a foster placement for him. 

I share this because, while the No New Youth Jail campaign has garnered great support against the jail, I worry that King County residents are not aware that the jail and the court are parts of the same machine that sends kids behind bars while separating them from their families through foster care.

Construction on the jail and courts should be halted, and those resources being used to re-invest in a system that fails children and families should be repurposed. What would it look like if King County took the resources being used for construction, and the untold millions that would be used to run the jail and courts for the next 50 years and put it towards childcare, income support, housing, mental health services, drug treatment, arts programming, transportation and all the things that low-income families actually need to thrive? Let’s find out.


S. Annie Chung is a Seattle-based attorney who has defended foster youth and parents for more than 10 years. She dreams of a future where families can live and love together without forced separation. No prisons. No foster care. No borders.

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