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Children's Voice Article, March 2001

From Child Maltreatment to Delinquency

By Peter Slavin

Child welfare files are full of cases of juvenile lawbreakers and adult criminals who were abused or neglected as children, as if the crimes committed against them when young planted the seeds of criminal behavior. But is the progression from victim to offender inevitable among children? Could child welfare have done anything differently that would have kept these young people from running afoul of the law?

It's no easy matter for child welfare and other professionals to ensure maltreated kids are raised in favorable situations and to keep them out of trouble. These are "complicated cases [with] complicated family situations," notes Mike Daly, who manages transitional services for the House of the Good Shepherd, a residential treatment center in Utica, New York. Daly says the cases have gotten tougher since he started working in this field 15 years ago. Why? He mentions the prevalence of drugs and alcohol, parents and children with far more psychiatric problems than previously, more single parents, and less support within families.

Fewer people, Daly says, "have extended families that are willing to step up to the plate and help out and have kids come live with them for a while. . . people are more isolated and have less to draw on from their families and from their communities and churches."

Research suggests child abuse and neglect may be fore-runners to involvement in the juvenile justice system. An unpublished review of research and literature by CWLA shows a strong, though not conclusive, link between child maltreatment - whether physical, sexual, or emotional - and delinquency. A CWLA study in Sacramento County, California, found that among children ages 9-12 who had been referred to child welfare, the arrest rate was 67 times greater than that of other children of this age.

Officials in Mecklenburg County (Charlotte), North Carolina, came at this question from the other end, reviewing the cases of 50 juveniles who were serious, habitual offenders. Their crimes included assault, armed robbery, carrying concealed weapons, making threats, possession of a handgun, and sex offenses. County officials discovered 52% had local child protective services histories. Certain themes ran through all these juveniles' records, including parental use of alcohol and drugs, parents with criminal records, domestic violence, and poor supervision.

To Martin P. Welch, Presiding Judge of the Baltimore City Juvenile Court, child welfare cases usually start with drugs. By his estimate, some 90% of his court's abuse and neglect cases are connected to drugs. "Usually, the primary caretaker's drug involvement is a direct contributing factor in a [child's] removal and involvement in the child welfare system. It's a cycle. The drug problem feeds the child welfare system, which feeds the delinquency system, which then feeds the criminal justice system."

Shortfalls

"Clarence"* was 5 and living in Charlotte, North Carolina, when child protective services first received a referral. Others followed. There was violence between his father and step-mother, but allegations they drank and smoked pot were never confirmed. At different times, Clarence was cared for by them, his mother in Florida, and his grandmother.

When he was 10, the police saw his mother drunk and striking her children. He was placed in foster care in Florida, then returned to his father. Various domestic disturbances - alcohol abuse, inappropriate discipline, domestic violence, the father firing a gun into the home - prompted more referrals, but no action. Eventually his father was incarcerated for another crime.

By the time Clarence was 12 or 13, he was in trouble with juvenile court. His offenses over the next few years included assault, possession of a weapon on school grounds, and armed robbery. Meanwhile, he was placed in the custody of the Department of Social Services (DSS), which arranged for therapy and foster care. But he ran away from his foster home, remaining AWOL for eight months; later he ran away from a correctional facility. When Clarence was 16, the court lost jurisdiction and DSS was divested of custody. No relatives were willing to take him in. Little is known of what has become of Clarence since, except that as an adult he has been charged with cocaine offenses and armed robbery.

Because child protective practice was less sophisticated in the early 1990s, certain interventions were not considered in Clarence's case, acknowledges Cebby McCarter, assistant director of Mecklenburg County Youth and Family Services. Clarence's caretakers were never assessed for substance abuse, and despite the children's exposure to domestic violence, they received no services since there was no tangible evidence the caretakers' behavior was harming them. The unseen effects on kids of substance abuse and domestic violence were overlooked.

Any number of missteps and obstacles can heighten the risk that a maltreated child will in time start down the road of crime. A child may receive the wrong placement or other service - or none at all - or the intervention may come too late, as in Clarence's case. The parents or guardians themselves may need help and not be offered it. The services to which an agency wants to direct a family may not be available locally, or the agency may not have the funds to pay for them. Some of these breakdowns are beyond a child welfare worker's control.

Sometimes kids get shortchanged simply because of caseworker biases and other weaknesses, says Linda Harllee, Juvenile Justice Program Manager for CWLA. These include lack of cultural understanding, sheer prejudice, ignorance, laziness, and preconceptions about kids - like the notion, for example, that cornrows or tattoos signify a "bad kid." The hard face some youth present to the world turns off some caseworkers, Harllee adds. So can a particular crime a juvenile has committed, especially if the caseworker finds it personally threatening. In addition, Harllee says, caseworkers may ignore these kids' backgrounds - the fact they "are often abused and neglected, have learning disabilities, [and] are victims of dysfunctional, often poor families."

Shortcomings in the case of a Utah girl named "Angie" were obvious. Her mother was mentally ill and committed suicide when Angie was 6. Because her biological father was in prison, child protective services (CPS) placed Angie with her grandmother, who physically abused her and told her she was a burden. Angie was later placed with her stepfather, who beat her so severely she suffered permanent brain damage. CPS would not remove her from his home despite her repeated requests. When they finally did place her in foster care, she ran away. She was placed in 40-odd foster care homes, group homes, and psychiatric hospitals. She ran from every one that wasn't locked because she did not feel "loved" there.

Last June, at 17, Angie was arrested in Nevada for child prostitution and public drunkenness; CPS in Utah terminated her case. She was accepted by Children of the Night, a Los Angles nonprofit agency that helps child prostitutes. For nearly two months, her CPS worker refused to mail her belongings there, figuring Angie would just run away again. As of last December, however, Angie had been there for three months and was doing well. Angie says she has not run away because the staff cares about her and has shown her she has a future.

Says Children of the Night founder and director Lois Lees, "We have a lot of kids who were in the child welfare system in different parts of the country, who may have been in foster care, who've run away repeatedly. When they run to California and we call their social workers, we're told their cases are closed. They're fed up with them." With nowhere to go, these kids are ripe for exploitation.

The Child Welfare-Juvenile Justice Tango

A major pitfall in the handling of maltreated kids is how child welfare and the juvenile justice system work - or don't work - together. The parallel, often overlapping, sometimes conflicting efforts of these two systems in handling juveniles is an on-again, off-again tango, one that often runs counter to a child's interests. For too long, says Mecklenburg's McCarter, child welfare and juvenile justice professionals have operated in isolation, neither thinking about how to work with the other system. Too often, she says, they don't ask a family who else is working with them or consider who else might be of help to the family, such as school staff.

"They kind of speak different languages," says Kelly Darrow of the Mental Health Association (MHA) of Westchester County, New York, which provides child welfare services. Darrow, who directs MHA's case management and transitional services, notes that whereas the North Star of social services is the needs and best interests of the child, the juvenile court system is built around crime and punishment - curbing undisciplined and delinquent behavior.

Caseworkers and probation officers alike tend to take a narrow view of their responsibilities and not communicate across department lines, in part because of the demands imposed by their heavy caseloads, McCarter says. Baltimore's Judge Welch finds caseworkers and probation officers likely to talk only when events force them to, such as when a young person is arrested on a serious charge and his or her social worker must come to a detention hearing.

Jamie Rau holds a similar view. Clinical director at Bonnie Brae Educational Center, a residential treatment facility in New Jersey, Rau generally sees collaboration between the systems only "at crunch time." After a youth is convicted, Rau says, juvenile court judges, at the request of child welfare workers, regularly suspend sentencing to give caseworkers time to find treatment for the youth, and some judges vacate the charges entirely once treatment is completed. A more ironic example of the systems cooperating, he says, occurs when a juvenile court judge gets fed up and tells a caseworker, "If you don't find a placement for this child, I'm going to put you in jail."

Rau sees another unfortunate situation where the two systems work together - in closing cases prematurely to move kids off their caseloads and save money. He points to the case of a young man, charged with sexually abusing a minor, whom the two systems agreed to withdraw from Bonnie Brae because his family was moving out of the county. The systems did this, Rau says, without arranging for any services in the new county and over Bonnie Brae's objection that "they were releasing an untreated sex offender into the community."

The gulf between the two systems can be huge, Darrow says. In New York State, she observes, "information isn't shared between the two, experience. . . isn't shared, [nor] training."

Sometimes, Darrow explains, it's as simple as a staff member in one system not asking his or her counterpart in the other system for its records on a child. A teenage client of hers named "Will" had a history of setting fires, causing some professionals to jump to the conclusion that some treatment centers would not accept him. Child welfare had Will evaluated by a fire-setting expert twice, four years apart, and found he was a low risk for setting further fires if he were in a structured setting. His probation officer, however, "never asked for any evaluations of this kind, or for any other clinical information," Darrow says. He did so only when Will's mother suggested it.

Rather than fight for jurisdiction over a case, the two systems are more likely to treat a mutual client like a hot potato, playing tag in terms of responsibility. When caseworkers "have a child that's a pain in the ass, they're more than happy to drop him on probation [services]," says Children of the Night Program Director Vicki Balet.

According to Rau and Children of the Night's Lois Lees, child welfare agencies often encourage bringing criminal charges against an aggressive or otherwise difficult adolescent for less serious offenses, like shoplifting or vandalism, or "status" offenses, like truancy or running away, to shift responsibility to the juvenile court. Sometimes, this is to secure the court's backing in getting needed services for a child, Rau acknowledges. But other times, he notes, a child welfare agency just wants to wash its hands of a hard case.

Another problem, Rau says, is child welfare agencies using juvenile detention facilities as short-term shelters when they can find no long-term placement for a difficult youth or want to reduce their legal liability for his or her well-being. They do this by permitting managers of runaway shelters, group homes, and the like to bring criminal charges against kids for status offenses. This not only may give a kid a criminal record, Rau points out, but confinement in detention means the youth will get no counseling and few other services.

Still, the situation has bright spots. Darrow observes there are times when court staff act like social workers. After Will wrote a letter to the judge in his case thanking her for helping him get on the right track, the judge wrote back. The judge has also agreed to be part of his discharge planning. Says Darrow, "She really has taken an active interest in him."

Crossing Boundaries

Juvenile justice and child welfare professionals in some jurisdictions are making concerted efforts to collaborate. In North Carolina, Mecklenburg County Youth and Family Services (YFS) staff work within reach of professionals in other agencies that serve young people. "We share a floor with the juvenile court counselors," McCarter says, "and we have a unit of two supervisors and 13 social workers who specialize in bridging between the juvenile justice system and community services." On another floor, YFS provides space to a mental health clinician, who assists with assessments and access to services, and two school psychologists, who help with educational assessments, planning, and advocacy for children in DSS custody. YFS will also be adding a substance abuse counselor.

DSS has found collaboration works best, McCarter observes, "when other professionals are housed with us and. . . experience child protective services firsthand."

Cook County (Chicago), Illinois, is overcoming the historical separation between its two juvenile court divisions, which handle child welfare and delinquency issues, respectively. Last March, the juvenile court's presiding judges set up a committee on dually involved minors, drawn from representatives of all the agencies involved with juvenile court, from the police to the public defender. The aims, says Cheryl Cesario, general counsel to the state Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), include more cooperation between probation officers and caseworkers and better legal representation of minors.

A database was created to track the 550 to 600 dually involved minors in the court system at any one time, thus improving the flow of information between the two divisions. Updated daily and distributed weekly to all judges, hearing officers, and juvenile court offices, the database contains court dates and caseworkers' names and telephone numbers. Delinquency court judges and probation officers, in particular, use the information to coordinate court dates and communicate with DCFS workers and attorneys.

As a result, Cesario says, "Caseworkers know when their kids have a case on the other side" and are showing up in delinquency court more often. Judges have become more attuned to dually involved minors, adds Peter Parry, a DCFS supervision counsel. One judge even hears all such cases back to back.

The database has also led to the same-day scheduling of child welfare court hearings and delinquency trials. "When a child is done with his [delinquency] case, he can just walk across the hall" to his child welfare hearing, Parry says. This gets more teenagers to their permanency hearings, something DCFS wants so they have a role in making the plans.

The database has also helped DCFS attorneys, who represent the department but also are in a position to help juveniles. Before, Parry says, the department was not notified of all its cases, or often received court summonses late. Now, DCFS attorneys quickly learn about new cases and can be ready for the first hearing.

Another change is that DCFS attorneys are now regular fixtures in delinquency as well as child welfare courtrooms. Previously, although a DCFS attorney attended every child welfare hearing, the same two DCFS attorneys had to cover all delinquency hearings. "They were running from courtroom to courtroom [performing] triage," Parry says. Now the same DCFS attorney assigned to a juvenile's child welfare case also attends the youth's delinquency hearings. Knowing the youth and his or her background makes the attorney invaluable in the court's efforts to change his behavior, Parry says.

These kinds of collaborations are encouraging to CWLA Executive Director Shay Bilchik, who says, "We must stop looking at our jobs as just child welfare, or juvenile justice, or education, or law enforcement and begin viewing our efforts as part of a single comprehensive system of service delivery for children and families in need. Real lives don't have strict boundaries."

* The names of children and youth in the cases described in this article have been changed to protect their privacy.

Peter Slavin is a freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area.

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