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“Crossover Youth”: The Intersection of Child Welfare & Juvenile Justice

Crossover youth is more than the latest buzzword in the often jargon-filled lexicon of juvenile justice. Instead, the term reflects a growing understanding of the dynamic between child abuse, neglect and delinquency. This population of young people has contact with both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

Addressing child welfare is challenging enough, let alone when joined with deeper problems of delinquency. Abused young people often carry scars of trauma and pain, which can inform delinquent behavior that leads to subsequent contact with the juvenile justice system. However, the complex challenges and needs of crossover youth often prove too much for each system alone to address. Practitioners must find a reasonable solution that ameliorates these issues or crossover youth may re-enter the child welfare system or go on to commit more serious offenses. Instead, an integrated approach, which builds on each system’s unique strength, is the ideal approach.

Who are these young people?

The exact number is unknown, given the absence of rigorous data collection, although estimates range from 9 percent to 29 percent of those in the child welfare system. A recent webinar, by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), detailed how a majority of these young people suffer from wide-ranging challenges, which include education difficulties, mental health issues and sexual abuse.

Another major contributing factor is that many suffer from placement instability. A recent study of dually involved youth in LA County found that 55 percent had been relocated between group homes and foster care placements three or more times during their lifetimes.

Why do crossover youth matter?

The crossover population represents a unique challenge for both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. A 2001 study by the Vera Institute of Justice found the likelihood of detention for foster youth awaiting trial for misdemeanors or minor felonies was 10 percent higher than non-foster care youth. Moreover, they frequently suffer amid a compartmentalization of system care and oversight. For example, juveniles who make contact with the justice system may lose access to welfare services and their respective case manager, resulting in a disruption to their therapeutic services.

The long-term consequences for crossover youth are significant with many suffering higher incidence of drug use and exacerbated mental illness. The aforementioned study of LA County also found that crossover youth have a higher recidivism rate than non-crossover youth, and more than 30 percent have new maltreatment referrals following their arrest. These young people may not only commit offenses as adults, but may well perpetuate the cycle of maltreatment as parents.

What can be done?

Fortunately, juvenile justice professionals are increasingly recognizing the unique situation of crossover youth and are developing system tools sensitive to the specifics of their problem. Law enforcement officials, judges, and child welfare practitioners are beginning to collaborate on how to best meet the needs of this unique population early enough to offset the substantial human and fiscal cost. In addition, reform-minded foundations and non-profits have initiated pilot technical assistance programs across the country, in the hopes of creating replicable best practices. The recent OJDDP webinar featured speakers advocating for multi-disciplinary teams to bridge the system-wide gap, an approach shared by others.

For example, the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, at Georgetown University, developed The Crossover Youth Practice Model, which is currently used at 11 jurisdictions across the country. A central feature of the model is to encourage multi-agency collaboration across the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Such coordinated case management and supervision fosters family engagement and youth permanency. This directly addresses the instability that leads many young people from the child welfare system to the juvenile justice system. In California, the Sierra Health Foundation, through their Positive Youth Justice Initiative, has also taken a lead in fostering county-level innovation to address this issue.

In the complicated world of juvenile justice, there is not always a clear distinction between young people in the child welfare system and those in the juvenile justice system. Abused and neglected young people come into contact with the justice system due to any number of contributing factors.  For each system to work best, they must first understand whom crossover youth are and develop necessary treatment and support models. This requires child welfare and juvenile justice departments to collaborate on best practices, streamlined case management and more effective data collection.

Such partnerships bring a sense of stability and continuity of care that crossover youth so often lack. Moreover, this represents a promising development in juvenile justice, where youth are recognized for their potential to succeed beyond a history of neglect and abuse.

Brian Goldstein is a member of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ)'s policy team and a Masters graduate in political science from San Francisco State University.  His expertise is on political trends in criminal justice reform.

Experts Offer Strategies for Preventing Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice Crossover

We knew the pathway existed,” Shay Bilchick said during the opening of Preventing Youth from Crossing Over Between the Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice Systems, a webinar held Wednesday by the National Training & Technical Assistance Center, a program of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

As a prosecutor working the family court circuits in Florida, Bilchik -- now the founder and director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform (CJJR) at Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute -- noted an apparent connection between child abuse and neglect and delinquency cases, referring to such crossover youth as a “challenging” population. 

Shortly after Bilchik joined the Public Policy Institute in 2007, the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform and Casey Family Programs worked together to create the Crossover Youth Practice Model. This model stems from the Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare Integration Breakthrough Series Collaborative, developed in the mid-1990s by the Associates in Process Improvement, Casey Family Programs and the Institute for Healthcare Improvement.

According to Bilchik, certain methods, policies and practices can “interrupt the trajectory” of crossover between child welfare and juvenile justices systems. Serving as the webinar’s moderator, he introduced three speakers with extensive experience in “crossover prevention.”

“These young people are our young people,” said CJJR Program Manager Macon Stewart. “Prevention is a collective responsibility.”

Stewart said that crossover youth entails three categories of juveniles; those that have experienced some level of maltreatment and delinquency -- typically referred to simply as “crossover youth” -- as well as dually-involved youth and dually-adjudicated youth. The primary difference between the latter two, Stewart said, is that while dually-involved youth, to some degree, have been involved in both systems, dually-adjudicated youth have been “formally involved” in both systems through court actions.

Stewart noted four primary pathways in which youth crossover between child welfare and juvenile justice systems, noting that juveniles with open child welfare cases and subsequent delinquency charges represented the “most dominant form of crossover.”

Although many factors influence crossover youth, Stewart cited placement instability, the absence of pro-social bonds and challenges in educational settings as the three most common.

In evaluating crossover youth, Stewart advised communities to collect data on previous referrals, placement types, number of placement moves and especially individual pathways to crossing over. “The data is key in this,” she said, urging stakeholders to establish “a memorandum of understanding” around data sharing.

Stewart suggested that prevention efforts focus on building collaborative relationships with local law enforcement, placement providers and schools, emphasizing “time-limited” and “very targeted” approaches. She advised that foster home and residential placement personnel should have trauma-informed training and encouraged the use of student mentors and advisors for at-risk youth. She also advocated the use of school liaisons, so that stakeholders could concentrate on “what can you do as opposed to focusing in on what you can’t do.”

“Prevention strategies in L.A. have been going on for many years,” said Maryam Fatemi, the deputy director of Los Angeles County’s Division of Family and Children Services. She said that the county adopted their initial process in 1997, resulting in a pilot project, called the AB 129-Systems Integration Initiative, in 2007. By 2012, an updated protocol called the Los Angeles County Crossover Youth Initiative -- which is anchored around multi-departmental, joint assessments -- had been implemented countywide.

Citing a 2011 study funded by the Hilton Foundation, Fatemi said there was a definite connection between prior child abuse and neglect and juvenile delinquency. The adult outcomes for crossover youth, she said, were many times tragic.

“Nearly one quarter of crossover youth received treatment for a serious mental illness during the first four years of adulthood,” she said.

Fatemi promoted the use of multi-system strategies, specifically multi-disciplinary teams and collaboration with existing school-based programs, as a means of preventing youth crossover. “Education and employment services provide key opportunities for intervention,” she said.

Children in group homes are a population Fatemi is particularly concerned about. “Youth living in a group home when arrested are more likely to be detained in juvenile hall than youth residing in other types of placement,” she stated. To deter youth crossover, she advised that group homes engage in sharing data with other departments and give feedback to other agencies about staff turnover and delays in service.

Mick Moore, assistant to the Superintendent for Interagency Relations with the Puget Sound Educational Service District and a senior education consultant in King County, Wash., helped develop the PathNet model, which is designed to help crossover youth achieve “alternative pathways” to education, particularly when they lack sufficient credits to obtain a high school diploma.

“Stability is a key factor in limiting crossover,” he said. The PathNet model consists of four primary modules, which include strength-based assessments, student-driven plans, connectivity to proper educational and vocational programs and the assistance of a “care manger,” which Moore described as “a significant adult there to help them.”

Moore referred to the program as “an immediate step to the next connection in education and vocation.” In 2010, House Bill 1418 was officially adopted by the Washington Legislature, creating a statewide program to reengage youth that are “significantly” behind in academic credits.

Using braided funding models, a number of programs designed to help crossover youth were established, among them a dropout intervention program targeting Latino youth called “Avanza” as well as a project called “Pathway through Apprenticeship,” which helps community college students connect with local businesses and industries.

Moore ended his presentation by stating that crossover youth require consistent, dependable services, which may take many years to develop.

“Instability is one of our greatest problems with these youth,” Moore concluded. “Reengagement into education and vocation with crossover youth is a process, not a singular event.”

Photo by the OJJDP.

Wealth of Research from Center for Juvenile Justice Reform

Georgetown University's Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, led by Director Shay Bilchik, has published a number of research studies that tackle a wide variety of juvenile justice issues.  We've highlighted a few of the best below.  Be sure to check out the Center's website for many more resources.

Detention education reform report

Children in the juvenile justice system are more likely to have learning disabilities and behavior disorders, according to researchers at Georgetown University’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform.  They reviewed state programs to educate these children and found that agencies often don’t work together. As a result, there is “duplication, fragmentation and the diffusion of responsibility” that prevents kids in the system from getting the education they need to be successful when they get out.   Some conclusions of their study:

  • Early education is essential.
  • Quality education services are critical for successful
  • development of all youth.
  • If outcomes matter, they must be measured.
  • Support services are needed to help some youth
  • succeed.
  • Interagency collaboration and communication is vital.
  • Change requires within-agency and cross-agency
  • leadership.
--Photo courtesy of Simon Shek photostream