Are children being used as pawns for panhandling?

SEATTLE — On Sept. 14, when the Seattle-area had the second-worst air quality in the world, KIRO 7 watched panhandlers with children go car to car begging for cash. “I was horrified,” said pediatrician Dr. Lelach Rave. The children spent hours, without masks, breathing smoke from California wildfires. “When you’re dealing with especially young children, where the tissue is sensitive and their respiratory systems are developing, it’s even more dangerous,” said Rave.

Last year, numerous women with children panhandled on downtown Seattle sidewalks. “For my baby, for my rent, no rent. I lost my job two months ago,” a panhandler told KIRO 7. Softhearted pedestrians were quick to respond with cash. “Obviously, she had a child. So that made a difference,” said David Crofts. The women worked in tandem. “I watch the vans drive around and pick them up and drop them off,” said Cody Snow.

A video of the panhandlers was shown to Secretary Ross Hunter, of the Washington Department of Children, Youth and Families. “I’ve not seen this before,” said Hunter.

While some of the children appeared alert, others were motionless. We saw a woman on three occasions holding children who appeared to be in a deep sleep. At one point, a woman walking by was alarmed and began shooting a video with her phone. “The baby’s not walking up. Did you drug the baby?” said the concerned pedestrian. “He’s sleeping,” said the panhandler. The pedestrian pressed the panhandler and said, “OK, wake him up for me. Show me he will wake up.” In the video, the child did not appear to wake up. “I felt like the kid was in peril. The child was totally flaccid. There was no movement from this kid at all, and that’s when I decided — it was like my ‘mother bear’ instinct kicked in,” the pedestrian told KIRO 7. After watching the video, Hunter told KIRO 7, “I’m concerned about that. It’s hard to imagine a baby doesn’t wake up, and I will go look into it.”

After our story last November, the women and children immediately disappeared from downtown Seattle. This past August, they returned. Among those panhandling include a woman who held a child and a sign outside Nordstrom. The sign indicated that she needed money for a motel. She admitted to KIRO 7 last year that she actually had a home. “I’m not suffering. I have my home. I have two kids. I lost my job. That’s it,” said the woman.

KIRO 7 followed four of the panhandlers as they rendezvoused in downtown Seattle and counted a stack of bills before boarding a bus. On the bus, the four spoke in Romani and Romanian. While a boy played on an iPhone, the four talked about how much they made. “The niece got 100 bucks. We need more dollars,” said one woman. After a 70-minute ride, the women walked to an apartment complex where rent can be as high as $2,220 a month.

When panhandlers with children appeared in Snohomish, city leaders said the panhandlers turned down an offer of help. “I’m not comfortable with the idea of using children to panhandle. They shouldn’t be out there all day long being used to collect money,” said Mayor John Kartak.

Last month, a group of panhandlers with children begged for cash in a Tacoma parking lot. The children were not wearing masks at a time when COVID-19 cases are rising. “It’s risky for all of us to be out without masks. I don’t know what’s behind why these moms are choosing this, and I certainly would hope that they would choose to be acting in their children’s best interest and have to wonder what could be motivating them to make these particular choices,” said Rave.

It is legal to panhandle in Washington state. “Panhandling with a child is not abuse or neglect in and of itself,” said Hunter. The Washington Department of Children, Youth and Families encourages people to call the agency or 911 if they witness what appears to be abuse or neglect of a child. “If a group of people are using children to panhandle in ways that put those minors at risk of being neglected or abused, authorities might have to get involved to determine whether adequate care is being provided by the parents or guardians,” said Hunter.

Below is Secretary Ross Hunter’s full statement on panhandling:

"DCYF follows up on all credible reports of abuse and neglect that meet the legal definition required for an investigation. DCYF does not have legal authority to do CPS investigations without a credible report. A situation where children are kept outdoors for long periods in unhealthy air quality or temperatures might be considered neglect. The same might be true where children are repeatedly put in close contact with others without masks to help protect them from COVID-19. Clear evidence that the children were being drugged would of course also qualify.

"Panhandling with a child is not abuse or neglect in and of itself. However, any time a passerby or law enforcement officer feels that a child is in danger at that moment, the appropriate response is to call 911 or contact the Department of Children, Youth, and Families. Anyone who witnesses what appears to be abuse or neglect of a child by panhandlers should contact authorities and provide the location and other identifying information.

"A child might be kept out of school for a variety of reasons during a normal school year. CPS is not the appropriate first response in a missing school situation. However, anyone who witnesses children repeatedly absent during school hours should report the occurrences to truancy officers. This would also apply to children who should be attending school online or in virtual settings. It is the responsibility of the school district where a child lives to follow up on reports of repeated absences.

"DCYF is always willing to work with families in crisis to help them identify community resources to meet their needs. We connect families to community agencies that provide social services, housing assistance and food provisions. The panhandlers described may or may not be aware of services available to them. It is not possible to determine what home conditions are based on their decisions to collect money on the streets.

“If a group of people are using children to panhandle in ways that put those minors at risk of being neglected or abused, authorities might have to get involved to determine whether adequate care is being provided by the parents or guardians.”