Would `Becca Bill' Have Saved Becca? -- Named For Runaway Girl Who Was Murdered, New Law Gives Parents More Control Over Kids

Runaway law on TV --------------------------- Washington's new law dealing with runaway youths, known as the "Becca bill," will be the subject of a segment on Dateline NBC tonight. The program, which will explore Rebecca Hedman's life, airs at 10 p.m. on Channel 5.

TACOMA - On a Sunday afternoon two years ago, a man picked up Rebecca Hedman on a street corner in Spokane. He paid her $50 for sex.

The 13-year-old runaway didn't satisfy the 35-year-old man. She complained that it hurt. The man became enraged and demanded a refund. When she resisted, he grabbed a baseball bat and hit her six times in the back of the head.

Police found her body dumped on the embankment of the Spokane River.

She was known on the streets as Misty. But to her family, she was Becca, an awkward young girl with glasses, just entering her teens, who used to dress up her two cats, Molly and Louie, in baby clothes and push them along in a stroller.

Her name is on a new state law, the so-called "Becca bill" that legislators passed this year, hoping to prevent other young runaways from ending up as she did. About a dozen parents, each with gruesome stories about their runaways, testified that laws on the books at the time were inadequate to protect their children. Becca was their symbol.

Would the Becca bill have saved Becca? There are no guarantees, not when the unthinkable can happen on the streets.

There are also questions about whether the law was funded adequately by the Legislature, and how much it was weakened when Gov. Mike Lowry vetoed several portions.

But what he preserved in the bill changes the approach the state takes toward runaways. Rather than saying children's rights are paramount, the focus is on parents' rights. The new law hands parents the right to commit their children to counseling centers against their will.

It also authorizes detention of runaways for up to five days, even if they haven't committed a crime. Counselors would use this period to attempt to determine the child's problem.

Recalling how his adopted daughter's life spiraled from middle-school student to prostitution in little more than a year, Dennis Hedman said last week that at several junctures the law might have made a difference.

The violence began early

Sexual violence began early for Becca. When she was 6 months old, she was sexually abused in her natural parents' home, Hedman said. She came to the Hedmans in Tacoma to live as a foster child, and they eventually adopted her.

But the abuse didn't end there. When Becca was 5 and living with the Hedmans, she was again sexually abused, this time by an older adopted brother, Hedman said. The boy was sent to live elsewhere.

Hedman didn't think the abuse was why Rebecca ran away from home seven years later. She'd been through counseling. The entire family had. At 12, she seemed like many other children.

"Mom and Dad got hugs and kisses good night," he said. "She was my buddy."

But in middle school, she started hanging around with older kids. She became rebellious, groaned about doing chores, and began threatening to run away.

Her parents sent her to a state-run crisis residential center, where teenagers can be sent to cool off while the family begins working on its problems. When she didn't want to come home after the weekend, Becca went to live in a group home.

Hedman said Becca met older girls there who introduced her to marijuana and eventually crack cocaine. They would run away for days to party.

During one absence, Becca's mother told a police officer she'd throw Becca in her car if she saw her on the street. "The officer told her she'd be arrested for kidnapping and physical assault," Hedman said.

To Becca's parents, it seemed the law prevented them from keeping Becca safe.

Could have petitioned judge

No one told them about a tool they could have used, an at-risk-youth petition. They could have asked a judge to deem their child in danger and order her to stay in a safe place, like a foster home or a group home.

If she ran away from the group home, the judge could have put her into detention for a week; Hedman thinks the threat would have made an impression on his daughter.

She might not have run off from the group home for 47 nights - after which she finally returned home bruised, with cigarette burns on her forehead and shoulders, a crack addict and a prostitute.

"Two men she was working for sold her to some other men in Seattle for $50," Hedman said she told him during a frank conversation one night at the kitchen table.

"I felt like I'd been kicked in the stomach," he said.

But, Hedman said, "I didn't learn about an at-risk petition until after the fact. I mean really after the fact. After she was murdered."

When the Becca bill takes effect July 1, parents will be told of the petition - renamed the "children in need of services" petition, or CHINS - when a child runs away.

But children cannot be detained in a group or foster home under a CHINS petition. Maybe Becca would have heeded the judge. Maybe she would have run away anyway.

Becca returned, for a while

For a time after she returned home, after selling her body on Seattle's streets, Becca did well. She went to drug-counseling meetings, went back to school, won student-of-the-month honors once. She played with her cats, and Hedman saw glimpses of his daughter returning.

But there were still signs she was troubled. She paced all the time. With summer approaching, they decided to send her to a residential clinic in Spokane where she could have more supervision.

She ran away from that drug-counseling center, Daybreak, five times. At first, she ran because she had a fight with another girl. Each time she left, she stayed away longer. Each time, Hedman thinks, she was getting back, deeper and deeper, into street life.

Daybreak - an institutional building with dormitories - stands in the middle of 50 acres of pasture. The nearest road is a mile away, but Becca found her way to the city's red-light district, where she was killed.

Residential treatment centers such as this one are different from crisis residential centers, and do not have to be secure facilities under the Becca bill.

No way to make them stay

Hedman said several police officers came up to him last month at the trial of John Medlock, who was convicted of Becca's murder. The officers said they had encountered Becca on Spokane's streets.

Police, however, have not been picking up runaways, largely because there was no place to take them. There is a shortage of crisis residential centers, and there was no way to make children stay in them.

"Police were frustrated because they'd take some kid to a center, and the first thing the kids are told is their rights. One of those is that they don't have to stay there. So the police would see them back on the street in a few hours," Hedman said.

Under the Becca bill, police will be required to pick up runaways at the parents' request and take them to a crisis residential center, where they will be assessed by a team of counselors. The doors of these centers are often like turnstiles. But the centers are now required to be secured so runaways can't walk right back onto the streets. The Legislature also appropriated $3 million to build more crisis residential centers.

Had they been able to pick up Becca in Spokane under the provisions of the new bill, and an assessment found she was addicted to crack, Hedman said he would have taken advantage of another provision in Becca's law. He would have committed her to a more secure, hospital-like drug-treatment center to make sure she wouldn't return to the streets until she'd gotten the help she needed.

Under the old state law, parents couldn't commit a child age 13 or older without the child's consent. The new law requires consent only when a child reaches age 18.

Maybe it would only have been another pause before Becca's death. Maybe she would have found another way to get what she sought from the streets. But the change puts the decision in the hands of parents and judges, not children. "Becca wasn't a bad kid," Hedman said. "She was allowed to make bad decisions."

But children's advocates say parents can take advantage of the change in the law only if they have the money to send their child to a treatment center. Tony Lee, lobbyist for the Children's Alliance, said the Legislature didn't put enough money in the budget for publicly funded centers, noting there are only about 50 publicly funded treatment slots in King County.

Other parents of runaways say the law also was weakened when Gov. Lowry vetoed a provision that would have enabled courts to detain runaways for six months if they ran away three times in a year.

Parents said that if Becca had no drug or emotional problems, the law would have given Hedman little recourse to have her held longer than five days in a crisis center. He could have filed another CHINS petition and put her in another group home. And Becca could have run again.

But Lowry said it's unconstitutional to allow any children, especially those with legitimate reasons for running, such as abuse, to be treated like criminals.

Hedman said the provision would have helped some parents, but he said the law is still an improvement. That is some comfort, he said, but it is hardly compensation.

When the Legislature passed the law in May, Hedman said his wife, Darlene, looked up to the ceiling of their kitchen.

"Thank God, but did you have to take my daughter?" she said.