Washington juvenile detention escape reflects long standing issues, union official says


Three teenage boys who fled Sunday evening from a youth detention center near Snoqualmie never made it off the property and were quickly captured.

But staff at Echo Glen Children's Center consider their escape from a maximum-security ward indicative of long-running issues with staffing and security at the state-run facility, according to one union official.

The teens — two 16-year-olds and a 17-year-old — appeared Monday before a King County juvenile court judge, who found probable cause to hold them in custody at the Children and Family Justice Center in Seattle on investigation of first-degree escape, Casey McNerthney, a spokesperson for the Prosecuting Attorney's Office, said in an email.

Prosecutors are expected to file escape charges Wednesday.

Staff at the medium/maximum security facility about 6 miles west of Snoqualmie in unincorporated King County called 911 at 6:15 p.m. Sunday to report the escapes, said Sheriff's Sgt. Eric White. Four minutes later, staff reported one of the three escapees was back in custody, leaving two teens on the run.

Sheriff's deputies, State Patrol troopers and officers from nearby police departments kicked off an intense search, including police dogs, drones and the sheriff's helicopter, Guardian One, White said in a news release Monday.

One of the teens was taken into custody at 8:02 p.m. and the second 30 minutes later, White said in the release.

In a slightly different account, Jason Wettstein, a spokesperson for the state Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), said two of the teens were captured near a maintenance facility yard within the first hour of the search and the third was found in the woods southwest of the main campus.

Details about the youths' identities and why they were incarcerated were not immediately available. Wettstein said a critical incident review team composed of people outside Echo Glen's management has been tasked with reviewing what led to the escape.

Mike Yestramski, president of the Washington Federation of State Employees, which includes about 300 Echo Glen employees, said two of the three youths were serving time for murder. Though he didn't know about the crime committed by the third teen, Yestramski said that boy had subsequently been charged with assaulting a staff member.

"I'm extremely frustrated," Yestramski, a social worker at Western State Hospital, said of the fifth escape from Echo Glen in the past two years. "I have friends who work there, I know a lot of those folks, and they're getting hurt and they're in danger."

Though no staff members were injured in Sunday's escape, Yestramski blamed what he considers a lack of leadership by DCYF Secretary Ross Hunter, who was the subject of a no-confidence vote from over 1,000 union members earlier this year.

Hunter, a former Microsoft manager and former state representative from Medina, has led DCYF since the cabinet-level department was created in 2017 to centralize the state's child-focused programs, including early education, foster care, Child Protective Services and the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration.

DCYF didn't immediately respond to questions about the union leader's claims.

Echo Glen is one of Washington's two medium/maximum secured detention facilities for juveniles and some young adults. As of Monday, 95 residents between the ages of 14 and 23 were housed there, Yestramski said.

Though he did not provide details on how the teens escaped, he said only two employees were on duty in a ward where there's a three-staffer minimum. Both employees, he said, have been on the job less than two months.

Echo Glen had a 50% vacancy rate for staff as of this past summer, and turnover is exceptionally high — with new employees often quitting after only months on the job, Yestramski said. Mandatory overtime has led to fatigue and burnout at a facility that has had six superintendents in the last two years, with the most recent leader leaving a couple of weeks ago after only six months, according to Yestramski.

In the most recent escape before Sunday, seven teenagers escaped from the facility in May after attacking a staff member and stealing her keys. According to the union, that could have been prevented were it not for staffing shortages and lack of training. Four of the seven incarcerated youth accused of fleeing the facility were later charged as adults in connection with the escape.

DCYF said at the time that Echo Glen would conduct a review and look for any needed changes. The facility, which is surrounded by wetlands, received $8 million in state funding this year to support security upgrades, including a perimeter fence.

"I've been hearing about this fence for 4 1/2 years so I'm frankly getting tired of the lip service of, 'Oh, we're going to do this,' and it never happens," Yestramski said Monday, noting construction isn't yet underway.

Though a fence would help deter escapes, Yestramski said it's essentially "window dressing" that wouldn't address chronic understaffing and the facility's "punitive culture."

In addition to the two escapes this year, six incarcerated people fled the facility in 2022.

One incarcerated child escaped that April and was taken back into custody shortly after. And five teenagers escaped that January after attacking staff members and stealing a state-owned vehicle, prompting the detention center to tighten security.

Employees were given electric carts instead of cars to drive around, and incarcerated children in maximum security were required to wear orange jumpsuits.