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Connections with Youth in the Child Welfare System

Youth involved in the Child Welfare System

In general, youth involved in the child welfare system, like their peers in the juvenile justice system, are

  • disproportionately minority;
  • live at or below the poverty line;
  • have strained, limited, or no family connections;
  • usually have mental health needs; and
  • have negative educational experiences and outcomes.

Youth in Both the Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare Systems

Many youth find themselves involved in both the juvenile justice system and the child welfare system at some point in their lives.

Pathways to being involved in both systems

Youth may follow several pathways in becoming known to multiple systems of care. Three ways this can happen include the following:

  • Most frequently, they enter the foster care system because of substantiated abuse or neglect and then, while in foster care, commit an offense that brings them into the delinquency system.
  • They enter the delinquency system with a prior contact with the child welfare system because of abuse or neglect, but may not be in foster care at the time of their arrest.
  • They enter the delinquency system with no prior contact with child welfare but, because of information revealed by the youth, the probation department refers them to child welfare for investigation of abuse or neglect.1

Additionally, in some states, child welfare and juvenile justice services may be administered by the same agency.

Overlapping risk factors

The factors that lead to involvement with the child welfare system often contribute and coincide with those that bring youth to the attention of the juvenile justice system.

  • Trauma: Trauma experienced prior to and during system involvement can negatively affect development for youth involved in both the juvenile justice and child welfare system. 
  • Family: Compromised social and family networks can make it difficult for youth to establish prosocial coping mechanisms as they mature emotionally and cognitively. Family tensions, which may result from abuse and neglect or out-of-home placement, can make it difficult for youth to establish a support network to help them overcome personal barriers to life success.
  • Abuse and Neglect: Child abuse and neglect increase the risk of any arrest of a juvenile by 55 percent, and the risk of committing a violent crime by 96 percent.2Persistent maltreatment and neglect extending from infancy to adulthood are significantly correlated with an increased risk of juvenile delinquency and criminality.3
  • Community Resources: Lack of community-based services and supports, especially in impoverished, and often minority, communities may lead to cross-system involvement.
  • Substance Abuse/Mental Health: Many youth involved in both systems struggle with substance abuse and/or mental health issues.

Youth involved with both the juvenile justice and child welfare systems, or “crossover youth,” can present a co-occurrence of problem behaviors and conditions. Even when they grapple with only one problem behavior or condition, the intensity of treatment is often greater than that for youth involved with a single system.

For example, many crossover youth experience educational difficulties, including truancy and poor academic performance. These educational issues can derail the aspirations for higher education of even the most motivated youth. Diagnosed and undiagnosed learning or other disabilities are often present and need to be addressed when planning for school completion, academic success, and job training.

Challenges in the Transition to Adulthood

Sustained family and community relationships are important in providing critical support to youth as they face the challenges of young adulthood. In many cases, out-of-home placement in either system can exacerbate family and community tensions, making successful integration into society as a young adult and the transition to adulthood even more difficult. Allowing youth to exit either system without working to repair these family and community relationships can reduce a youth’s future success in employment, education, and financial matters.

1 Herz & Ryan, 2008
2 Widom, 1989
3 Thornberry, 2008

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