SEATTLE - It was something that had become common for Washington State Patrol Sergeant Courtney Stewart — providing security while Washington Department of Transportation crews cleaned up remains of a Seattle encampment near Safeco Field. This time it brought her face-to-face with the issue of homeless children in the region.
Stewart was surprised to see several derelict RV’s and a number of tents still at the site, even though they’d been warned a cleanup was coming. Her surprise turned to anger when she rounded the corner and spotted a small homeless child sitting in the dirt.
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“She saw an approximately two-year-old child sitting on the ground eating stale powdered donuts on the ground and coloring,” said Trooper Rick Johnson, a spokesperson for the Washington State Patrol (the State Patrol wouldn’t let us talk directly with Sgt. Stewart.)
Johnson said the sergeant was heartsick seeing the little girl in such deplorable conditions.
The child was filthy, her diaper full.
“So she took it upon herself to change the child’s diaper,” Johnson said. “She noticed that one of her toenails had fungus and was falling off.”
The child’s parents were reportedly “at the store,” several other campers told Stewart. But Stewart felt those supposedly supervising her were active drug users not capable of providing appropriate supervision, Johnson said.
Sgt. Stewart called Child Protective Services directly and someone came out and took the child into protective custody.
The mother eventually came back and didn’t seem too surprised or all that concerned, Johnson says.
Stewart could have simply left the child there, but Johnson says no trooper could stand by in such a circumstance.
“That’s our duty. If she had left that child there, I don’t think she would have been able to sleep at night,” Johnson said. “That was the correct decision as far as I’m concerned.”
It’s not the only time law enforcement has encountered homeless children in such horrible conditions.
I spoke with several officers at both the Washington State Patrol and Seattle Police Department who have come upon and tried to help homeless families. They are prohibited from talking on the record with media about homeless children.
All told me that unless there is an immediate and urgent threat, as perceived by CPS, they can’t do anything.
For example, one of my sources told me about destitute parents living in a bus in Seattle with several kids, but despite what he thought were unacceptable conditions for a child, CPS decided it was in the family’s best interest to keep the kids with the parents.
You’d think with the growing homeless crisis, someone would be out looking to ensure the safety of homeless children.
You’d be wrong — at least proactively.
The Department of Social and Health Services does not have any people actively looking into the welfare of children, according to Norah West, a spokesperson with DSHS.
DSHS does have dedicated staffers who respond to complaints of youth missing from foster care by encampment residents, law enforcement other family members or others, but that doesn’t address young children living in squalor with their homeless parent or parents. And all responses are reactive.
“We know that supporting families to achieve housing stability also supports and reinforces the safety and well being of the children involved, so we spend a great deal of time, energy and resources providing that support,” West said. “This includes connecting families with local Community Services Offices for access to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), housing vouchers, etc., when appropriate.”
“When families have found and secured housing on their own, but find they cannot pay first/last/deposit, we can also help with funds,” she said.
Multiple calls and an email sent to the City of Seattle’s Human Services Department went unanswered, so there was no way of determining if anyone from the city proactively investigates known encampments for signs of children in potential distress.
As for the little girl, DSHS won’t tell me what happened to her — whether she’s OK or whether she has been returned to the custody of her mother and is living back out on the streets. All we know is she isn’t dead.
“Except in the case of a fatality or near fatality of a child, information related to child welfare services, including whether or not a child is in the care of the state or otherwise ‘taken care of,’ is protected by confidentiality law (RCW 13.50.100),” West said.
But at least we know, thanks to Sgt. Stewart, that the child was given a chance.