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Far-right legal group sues Washington officials over new runaway youth health care law

The U.S. District Court sign looms, in front of green trees behind it.
Megan Farmer
KUOW Public Radio
The U.S. District Court sign is shown on Thursday, August 17, 2023, along Stewart Street in downtown Seattle.

A far-right legal group is suing top Washington state officials in federal court over a new health care law for runaway youth. The legal challenge claims the new law violates parents' religious freedoms and custody rights.

The policy, which took effect last month, says that when kids run away from home and seek gender-affirming or reproductive health care, shelters can contact the state Department of Children, Youth, and Families instead of notifying their parents. The agency is then required to offer family reunification services. Previously, state policy required shelters to contact the runaway’s family directly.

The change has prompted pushback and protests from conservative lawmakers and groups since it was introduced during this year's legislative session.

But people tasked with implementing the policy point out it isn't the huge change critics say it is. Cole Ketcherside is a housing and homelessness prevention supervisor at the state's Department of Children Youth and Families.

"The main difference between before and now, is just who has responsibility for contacting the parent or guardian," Ketcherside said during an interview earlier this month. "That shifts from the shelter – the youth shelter provider – to DCYF."

Ketcherside said that the change also will allow the department to use its resources to help reunify parents with their children if they run away from home, instead of leaving it to shelter staff.

"It's actually more likely that that parent is going to know what's going on with their child and have an opportunity to reconnect and reconcile with them," he said.

Still, the lawsuit, filed in federal court Wednesday, echoes many of the same concerns raised by conservative groups that have pushed to limit access to gender-affirming and reproductive health care in states across the country. It comes after an initiative effort to repeal the law failed to gain enough signaturesearlier this summer.

The lawsuit names Washington's governor, attorney general and DCYF Secretary Ross Hunter as defendants. The group behind the lawsuit is run by Stephen Miller, who served as a senior advisor to former President Trump.

Jeanie Lindsay is a radio reporter based in Olympia who covers the Washington state government beat for the Northwest News Network, the Pacific Northwest's regional collaboration of NPR stations.