Recipe for Reform School: Why Some Kids and Teens in the Child Welfare System End Up in the Juvenile Justice System

Originally established to address the needs of child victims of abuse and neglect, the child welfare system was primarily concerned with child safety and home stability. Over time, the system has increasingly provided services to youth with additional needs, including learning disabilities, mental health issues, and behavioral problems. At the same time, an increasing body of research has shown that youth in the juvenile justice system frequently have prior contact with the child welfare system—leading many to conclude that child welfare youth generally have increased risks of delinquency. New research led by Joseph P. Ryan at the University Of Michigan School Of Social Work and funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation through its Models for Change initiative, however, challenges the breadth of this finding. Professor Ryan’s studies  shed new light on the pathway from child welfare to the juvenile and criminal justice systems—and which youth are likely to follow it.

Prior research on crossover youth, or youth who move from the child welfare and juvenile justice system, does not distinguish youth based on why they are referred to the child welfare system. Ryan follows youth placed in the child welfare system in Washington State, grouping them based on the reason for substitute care placement—either maltreatment, behavioral problems, or for both behavioral reasons and abuse/neglect—and whether or not they had prior contact with the juvenile justice system.

Ryan finds that youth placed in substitute care for behavioral problems, regardless of prior justice system involvement, were more likely to be subsequently involved in the justice system than youth placed there for maltreatment. Despite the fact that youth referred to the child welfare system for behavioral problems could well have had an undocumented history of maltreatment, the child welfare system treated them differently than youth placed for maltreatment alone. Not only were their specific needs often unmet, but more critically, they were more frequently placed in unstable group homes   or larger residential facilities (e.g., “congregate care“) instead of with foster families. Ryan’s  prior  research  in  Los  Angeles  County  shows  that  congregate   care  itself is associated with later delinquency.

Ryan concludes that not all youth in the child welfare system have the same heightened risk of justice involvement; but youth who are referred for behavioral problems and placed in congregate care certainly do.

(From Models For Change)

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