WHO WILL PROTECT the children from their protectors? That's among the questions lingering over the troubled Echo Glen Children's Center in Snoqualmie that the Legislature may answer this session. Home to 200 juvenile offenders, Echo Glen is where the state recently tried to hush up the second teen suicide in three years and then halfheartedly investigated the causes [See "Disturbing Echo," June 28, 2001]. It's where a supposedly supervised 10-year-old sex offender repeatedly had sex with other residents for two years, costing the state a $125,000 legal settlement a few weeks ago. It's also where a recently fired ex-con had been counseling—and sometimes "inappropriately" touching— children since 1995.
State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles thinks it's way past time for new legislation—which she plans to introduce soon—dealing with the issue of offenders tending offenders. "We do need to be careful that people who have served their debt to society are not punished twice by being denied employment," says the Seattle Democrat. But she thinks a balance can be struck by tinkering with an existing law (which she also championed) that allows the state to run criminal background checks on some employees with unsupervised access to children and vulnerable adults (among the law's flaws: A review is allowed only if an applicant has lived in Washington for three or fewer years).
It's not just Echo Glen residents who may be in peril, the senator says. "DSHS estimates that 50 to 200 of its employees working with vulnerable populations have criminal convictions, some of which are very serious."
The catch to changing it all, as usual, is money. To review backgrounds of all 15,000 employees of the Department of Social and Health Services working with captive/care populations would cost $735,000, she estimates. On the other hand, Kohl-Welles says, the state has shelled out millions in damages and settlements and for the legal battles to fire employees who posed an abuse risk. "In comparison, $735,000 [to weed out abusers in advance] is a bargain," she says. "And the emotional costs to victims and their families simply can't be measured." The idea's only political drawback may be that it makes so much sense.