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  2. Juvenile Justice
  3. Connections With Youth In The Child Welfare System

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 members of racially/ethnically marginalized groups
  • 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. These youth tend to face a greater number of risk factors than youth involved in just one system, and those risk factors are typically more complex and paired with fewer protective factors than those of single-system youth. They also experience recidivism at higher rates than single-system youth. 1 These factors mean that it is of the upmost importance to properly understand and listen to the experiences of dual-system youth, and to properly implement meaningful interventions created with them in mind.

  • In a study of juvenile justice involvement in three states (Cook County, IL, Cuyahoga County, OH, and New York, NY) the prevalence of dual-system youth in each location was 45 percent, 69 percent, and 70 percent, respectively. 2
  • In 2018 the Los Angeles, CA Probation Department found that 83 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system had been referred to child protective services for maltreatment at least once. 3
  • Increased information sharing and coordinated case supervision between the juvenile justice system and child welfare system is recommended by researchers as one promising avenue to better serve this population. 4

Pathways to being involved in both systems

Youth may follow 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.5

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. Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) has been shown to be effective in reducing PTSD and depressive symptoms as well as behavioral issues among youth. 6
  • 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 maltreatment (i. e., physical and/or sexual abuse, neglect) is a significant predictor of poly-violence perpetration, or the perpetration of multiple types of violence onto others. Children who have been neglected or abused are far more likely than their peers to enact violence against others, including but not limited to criminal violence, child abuse, and intimate partner violence. 7 Persistent maltreatment and neglect extending from infancy to adulthood is also significantly correlated with an increased risk of juvenile delinquency and criminality broadly. 8
  • Impact of Abuse on Delinquency: Children who are survivors of abuse are not only at high risk for becoming involved with the child welfare system, but they typically fall into one of three categories: victim, delinquent, or victim-delinquent. The first group consists of youth who are primarily victims of abuse with little to no engagement in delinquent behavior, the second consists of youth who are primarily engaged in delinquent behavior and are victim to lesser amounts of abuse, and the third group consists of youth who are victim to the highest frequency and intensity of abuse and have the highest engagement in delinquent behavior. 9
    • The more violence a child is exposed to and victimized by, the more likely they are to engage in serious delinquent behavior and criminality themselves.
  • Community Resources: Lack of community-based services and supports, especially in impoverished communities and racially/ethnically marginalized communities may lead to cross-system involvement. This is one area wherein concerned community leaders and organizations can play an active role in reducing the likelihood of youth becoming involved in both the juvenile justice and child welfare systems.
  • Substance Use/Mental Health: Many youth involved in both systems struggle with substance use 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 risky behaviors and conditions. Even when they grapple with only one risky behavior or condition, the intensity of treatment is often greater than that for youth involved with a single system.

For example, many youth involved in multiple systems 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. Educators’ early identification of these educational issues can be an impactful intervention to better serve crossover 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 the juvenile justice system or the child welfare 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. Providing sufficient familial and community resources for youth during their transition, however, can have an equally powerful impact towards benefitting their development and future trajectory rather than harming it.

Resources for Practitioners

Addressing the Mental Health Needs of Racial and Ethnic Minority Youth: A Guide for Practitioners (PDF, 28 pages)
This guide addresses reasons for differences in mental health etiology and outcomes among youth. While some youth who are members of racially/ethnically marginalized groups experience lower rates of lifetime mental health disorders, their disorders tend to have a more chronic course.

Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach (PDF, 27 pages)
This paper introduces SAMHSA’s concept of trauma and offers a framework for how an organization, system, or service sector can become trauma informed by integrating the perspectives of researchers, practitioners, and people with experience of trauma.

Child Abuse and Neglect Resources
This website shares resources, publications, and data sources on child abuse and neglect, including federal and non-federal resources for the public, interested community members, and practitioners.

Model Programs Guide: Foster Care/Child Welfare System
This guide presents evidence-based juvenile justice and youth prevention, intervention, and reentry programs. Each program is rated either effective, promising, or no effect. Users can search the database for programs and interventions based on the age range of the child or young adult or can use other search filters to find programs for families and youth either involved in or at risk of being involved in the child welfare system.

Education for Youth Under Formal Supervision of the Juvenile Justice System (PDF, 18 pages)
This literature review discusses the intersection of the educational and the juvenile justice systems. It outlines the academic characteristics and challenges of youth in the juvenile justice system (including those in detention and long-term secure residential facilities, and under probation supervision) and interventions aimed at improving educational outcomes for this high-risk population.

Practice Guide: Quality Education Services are Critical for Youth Involved with the Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare Systems (PDF, 27 pages)
This practice guide operates under the premise that quality education services are crucial in ensuring positive outcomes for youth involved with the juvenile justice and child welfare systems, particularly due to education’s potential to counterbalance the negative effects of previous hardships and traumas on youth’s educational outcomes. The guide provides practices and strategies for child-serving agencies and practitioners both at the implementation policy levels.

Reentry Employment Opportunities (REO) Program
This program provides funding for justice-involved youth and young adults and adults who were formerly incarcerated. Organizations partner with juvenile and adult justice systems to assist in providing employment and training to this population of individuals who may find it difficult to obtain employment or training without additional assistance. The mission is to inform the public workforce system on how best to serve this population. The REO program develops strategies and partnerships that will facilitate the implementation of successful programs at the state and local levels that will improve the workforce outcomes for this population.

Understanding Child Trauma
This infographic provides key statistics and information to help the public recognize the signs of child traumatic stress. This infographic can be downloaded as a whole or by the three key subject areas and is available in English and Spanish.

Resources for Youth Transitioning into Adulthood

Transition to Adulthood and Independent Living Programs
This webpage provides information on types of programs that serve youth aging out of out-of-home care, as well as tools and strategies for improving transition to adulthood and Independent Living programs.

DoD Starbase
This program enables student to participate in challenging "hands-on, mind-on" activities in aviation, science, technology, engineering, math, and space exploration. The program provides students with 20-25 hours of stimulating experiences at National Guard, Navy, Marine, Air Force Reserve, and Air Force bases across the nation.

USDA 1890 National Scholars Program (PDF, 18 pages)
This program provides full tuition, employment, employee benefits, fees, books, use of a laptop, printer, and software while on scholarship and room and board each year for four years to students pursuing a bachelor's degree at 1890 Historically-Black Land Grant Institutions.

This program provides job training and educational opportunities for at-risk youth, ages 16-24, while constructing or rehabilitating affordable housing for low-income or homeless families in their neighborhoods. Youth split their time between the construction site and the classroom, where they earn their GED or high school diploma, learn to be community leaders, and prepare for college and other postsecondary training opportunities.


1 Dierkhising et al., 2019; Herz, Ryan, and Bilchik, 2010; Kim et al., 2020; Lee & Villagrana, 2015; Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2021
2 Herz et al., 2019; Herz and Dierkhising, 2019
3 McCroskey, Herz, & Putnam–Hornstein, 2018
4 Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2021
5 Herz & Ryan, 2008
6 Cole et al., 2016; de Arrellano et al., 2014; Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2021
7 Milaniak, I., & Widom, C. S., 2015; Jung et al., 2015
8 Thornberry, 2008
9 Cuevas et al., 2013

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Young Adults Formerly in Foster Care: Challenges and Solutions

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