More problems, complex needs
Research has shown dual-status youth are more likely to have higher detention rates, higher recidivism, more frequent placement changes, substantial behavioral health problems and poorer school performance than children not involved in both systems, according to a 2014 report by the Boston-based Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps at the RFK National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice. The center has conducted extensive research on dual-status youth.
“It’s about tragic outcomes for a very disadvantaged set of youth,” said John Tuell, executive director of the RFK Center.
“It’s a very difficult, difficult, challenging, often recalcitrant population of youth who come into the system that holds them accountable for their behavior — often without understanding the developmental aspects of that behavior.”
Like other experts, Tuell notes childhood trauma, often associated with abuse or neglect, can have far-reaching impacts on youths.
Among them: difficulty developing a strong, healthy attachment to a caregiver, problems with authority figures like teachers or police, lack of impulse control and violent responses to some situations.
The complex needs of dual-status youth underscore the importance of the juvenile justice and other child-serving systems to work together. Historically, they have not, not by any stretch.
Slow change, new reforms
That’s starting to change, albeit slowly.
Five states (Delaware, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Rhode Island and Vermont) now centralize administration of child welfare and juvenile justice systems to better coordinate services between the systems. Two additional states (Tennessee and Wyoming) integrate all facets except juvenile probation, and other states integrate juvenile justice and child welfare services within separate divisions of umbrella agencies.
And on a smaller scale, dozens of jurisdictions nationwide have undertaken reform efforts funded by nonprofits, in some cases with backing from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
The RFK Center has worked with 13 jurisdictions on efforts designed to reduce the gap between the two systems and better serve dual-status youths.
Neha Desai, an attorney who serves as policy adviser for the fledgling Dually Involved Youth Initiative in Santa Clara County, said it has helped bridge the divide between the juvenile justice and child welfare systems there.
“Probation officers and social workers have never, ever worked together before — because it was a combative relationship, and now it’s a collaborative one — or in many situations, there was just no communication,” Desai said.
Now, probation officers and social workers sit side by side in the new Family Resource Center in San Jose, Calif., which is adorned with photographs of activists like Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez. The center has resources for youth in foster care (or formerly in foster care), including healthcare workshops and assistance with housing, job applications and legal matters.
The social workers and probation officers work closely on dual-status kids’ cases to ensure they’re getting the help they need, which often results in providing “trauma-informed” care rather than simply punishing them when they have been victims of abuse or neglect.
How might that play out? Desai points to the example of a dual-status youth who had been sexually abused and later became ensnared in the juvenile justice system after continually running away from placements:
“What happened with this youth, and with so many youth who fall into this, is the child welfare worker feels like there’s nothing for this kid: ‘We have placed her over and over again. She runs from every placement. She’s involved in dangerous activities, and we can’t protect her, and she’s going to get killed out on the streets and she needs to have the intervention of the juvenile justice system in order to keep her safe.’
“The juvenile justice system says, ‘Are you kidding me? This is absolutely not a youth that belongs in the juvenile justice system. That would be criminalizing a kid for being a victim. I mean, they’re being sexually exploited, and you’re saying that they need to be detained in order to keep them safe, but that’s punishing them for being a victim.’”
Desai notes juvenile justice system adjudication can bring “collateral consequences” that can hurt a youth’s ability to get a job, housing or financial aid for higher education, for example, and says progressive juvenile justice systems do everything they can to keep kids out of the system when practical.
Often, she said: “The systems can’t agree so there’s this constant finger-pointing: ‘No, this is your kid.’ ‘No, this is your kid.’ There is an all-out fight between both systems for literally years and court hearing after court hearing where they can’t come to an agreement” on which system the youth should be in as part of a joint recommendation to present to the court, as required by California law.
“Meanwhile,” she said, “the kid is on the run or in and out of detention, out of school, being retraumatized over and over again, and neither system can figure out what to do.”
Complexities and costs
Despite a dearth of national data on dual-status youth, studies from several jurisdictions illustrate the daunting challenges these cases present:
- A 2011 study based on 4,475 dual-status youths in the Seattle area titled “Doorways to Delinquency” found one in five of the youths had gone AWOL from placements at least six times and 61 percent had done so at least once. The study, published by the Pittsburgh-based National Center for Juvenile Justice, also showed 70 percent of the dual-status youth with the most serious child welfare histories reoffended within two years after the study began tracking their delinquency careers.
- The 2004 Arizona Dual Jurisdiction Study, published by the National Center for Juvenile Justice, found that 204 dual-status youth in the Phoenix area averaged about 10.3 different placements. And 90 percent of them had spent time in large group homes or residential centers, as opposed to homelike settings or foster care.
- A 2011 study funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, “Young Adult Outcomes Of Youth Exiting Dependent Or Delinquent Care In Los Angeles County,” found that among 330 dual-status youth almost two-thirds had a jail stay within four years of exit from the juvenile systems. The study also found dual-status youths were far more likely to heavily rely on public services, less likely to attain higher education and less likely to be consistently employed.
- Costs associated with dual-status youths can be staggering, especially compared with the tab for community-based intervention to help troubled youngsters. A December study by the nonprofit, Washington-based Justice Policy Institute found the average annual cost of institutional placement of one youth was nearly $149,000.
- The Washington state “Doorways: study based on residential care in the Seattle area estimated its cost at $38,000 a year, though Tuell said he believes that is low.
The complexities and potential costs of dealing with dual-status kids notwithstanding, success stories show how breaking down barriers between the juvenile justice and child welfare systems can make all the difference in a child’s life.
Consider, for example, the case of a 14-year-old in Omaha, Neb. After the latest of many fights, this one on a school bus in fall 2013, he was ticketed by a school resource officer, and his case ended up before the Douglas County attorney.
The youth, whose name is being withheld to conceal his identity, had been severely abused by his mother, abandoned when he was 3 and placed in four or five foster homes by his teens. He had been arrested repeatedly on assault charges and failed to comply with probation requirements. In short, his prospects appeared dim.
“This kid’s an angry kid, which you understand when you hear about the circumstances of his life,” said Nicholas Juliano, the co-chair of Youth Impact! of Douglas County, a public-private organization shepherding the county’s dual-status reform.
The county received technical support from the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University’s Crossover Youth Practice Model, based in Washington.
The Omaha reform effort emphasizes sharing data between the juvenile justice and child welfare systems and bringing together representatives of both systems, along with parents or foster parents and, in this case, school officials, to improve prospects for crossover youths.
Thus, the county attorney, the boy’s foster father, social workers, school staff and a probation officer who had worked with the youth came together with an eye toward finding a solution that would keep him from being prosecuted for fighting.
The result: a written agreement that the youth would avoid fighting, attend school regularly, return to therapy for anger management and attend a program designed to help him resist the temptation to join a gang.
The agreement specified the assault charge would be dropped if the boy — an African-American, like a heavily disproportionate share of dual-status kids — complied with all requirements by the end of the 2013-14 school year.
He did. Now, he’s doing well in school and has a good shot at going to college.
Of course, some foster parents become unwilling to stand by their kids when they get caught up in the juvenile justice system, says Joseph P. Ryan, an associate professor of social work at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and an expert on child welfare and the juvenile justice system.
“The big challenge for a lot of foster kids is keeping them out of the juvenile justice system and keeping them at least in shallow end,” Ryan said. “On the juvenile justice side, that’s in-home probation. But for these kids, a lot of times, foster parents don’t want that. They didn’t sign up to work with kids who were involved with the justice system. They signed up to work with kids involved with abuse and neglect cases.”
Pointing to research he did in metropolitan Los Angeles in 2008, Ryan said children with open child welfare cases are more likely to get pushed deeper into the juvenile justice system than other kids.
He also found that dual-status kids were more likely to be sentenced to group homes, youth detention camp or a juvenile detention facility and less likely to receive probation than those with no child welfare history.
“Such environments increase the likelihood of associating with deviant peer groups and reinforcing antisocial attitudes, values, and beliefs,” wrote coauthor Denise C. Herz of California State University, Los Angeles. “Moreover, youth leaving these programs are at an increased risk of recidivism and of entering the adult correctional system.”
Involvement in the child welfare system also tends to cast doubt in juvenile court judges’ mind about the likelihood a youth can be rehabilitated, Ryan said.