Children's Voice Article, January/February, 2005
Youth in Foster Care Who Commit Delinquent Acts
By Leslee Morris
Charles* intimidated me. He was 21, big, and energetic, and he seemed to take up most of the room. He showed up at my office after a friend told him about the study we were conducting of youth arrested for delinquency while living in foster care.
When Charles began to talk, he had a lot to say. He had entered foster care at age 9 after his father beat him severely.
At 14, he was living in a group home in the Bronx when he was arrested after a fight broke out between his group of friends and some other young men.
His thoughts and feelings about his experience as a youth in foster care and in the juvenile justice system echoed those of the other young people we had interviewed. Chiefly, Charles was angry and hurt that no adult was by his side to help him navigate the juvenile justice process. He had appeared in juvenile court several times, and no one from the group home where he had been living for a year had come to any of the proceedings.
I asked if he had any idea why the staff and social workers with whom he interacted daily failed to appear with him in court or visit him when he was detained overnight.
"I have no idea," he replied. "You should call and ask them."
A Common Story
Charles's experience as a young person in foster care who enters the juvenile justice system is not unique. Recent research by Joseph P. Ryan and Mark Testa at the Children and Family Research Center, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, makes clear that youth who have experienced abuse and neglect are more likely to engage in juvenile delinquency than are youth in the general population.
Studying maltreated and nonmaltreated children in Cook County, Illinois, Ryan and Testa found that substantiated victims of maltreatment average 47% higher delinquency rates than children not indicated for abuse or neglect. They also found that children who had been placed in substitute care at least once were significantly more likely to have a delinquency petition than were children who had never been in substitute care.
Their research confirms what those familiar with child welfare and juvenile justice inherently know--youth in foster care face a strong likelihood of appearing before the juvenile court on a delinquency charge. As one juvenile court judge in our study commented,
In my experience, foster care is just one of those preparatory steps before the kid commits a crime. [Most] kids…in foster care will do something--trespass, shoplift, assault, smoking marijuana, whatever. If you get in foster care, the risk factors go up, and you'll probably see the kid in the delinquency system.
Children's Rights, a national child advocacy organization based in New York City, recently examined the experiences of youth who were in foster care when they appeared before a juvenile court after being charged with delinquency. We conducted in-depth individual interviews and focus groups with young adults, foster parents, juvenile court judges, child welfare and juvenile justice administrators, and other child welfare professionals. [To order the report from that study from CWLA, see end of this article.]
Our study also identified programs that meet the needs of youth involved in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems and analyzed the law regarding the rights of foster parents and other adults to advocate on behalf of youth in foster care who appear in delinquency court.
Three key points emerged from our study:
Influenced by the Environment
- Involvement in the child welfare system may itself contribute to delinquent behavior in three distinct ways.
First, youth in foster care may respond to being separated from their families, placed with families or other caregivers whom they don't know, and repeatedly moved from place to place, by adopting an attitude of disregard and developing a sense of unaccountability.
One young woman who was arrested for shop-lifting while living with a foster family said,
If kids lived with their families, maybe they'd try not to get in trouble. But they don't have a family. So what if their group home or foster family finds out? They're not the real parents. You figure you've got nothing to lose because you're not with your family.
Other youth echoed this sentiment, supporting a hypothesis by Ryan and Testa: Substitute care--especially the instability of substitute care--increases the risk of delinquency for maltreated children because it disrupts the social bonds that tie youth to significant caregivers and conventional institutions.
The situation might be exacerbated when caregivers don't connect with youth in their care. Charles said several caregivers told him repeatedly he would never amount to anything. Other youth said their foster parents reminded them they were "foster kids" and made them feel unvalued. One young man remarked,
I got into trouble because of all the anger I have inside me. Being in foster care is hard. My foster mother told everyone I was her foster kid, and they all teased me. And not being with my family--I didn't know what was going on. I missed them, and I didn't like anybody. I took being in foster care out on everybody.
Second, because many group homes serve youth from many different backgrounds and experiences, youth who haven't engaged in delinquent activity before entering care may suddenly find themselves living and associating with youth who have been delinquent. We heard several examples of youth who began selling drugs after seeing their peers in the group home doing so. One young man described his group home as "the West Point of crime."
Finally, a number of professionals who were interviewed--and the youth themselves--pointed to the tendency of group home staff and foster parents to call police for otherwise "normal" adolescent behavior that would be handled within the family if youth were living with their birthparents. Several youth said police were called frequently for situations that group home staff could have rectified, such as fighting and minor thefts. One young man commented,
There was a time when kids would steal petty cash, and it was nothing and they'd handle it internally. Now it's grand larceny and you're going to jail. Youth used to be handled internally, even for serious crimes, but now they prosecute you.
Even some foster parents summon the police when the children in their care become unruly. Of the 17 foster parents we interviewed as part of our study, 13 said they had called the police, and not their agency, to report a problem with children in their care.
Common sense suggests that any youth's self-esteem would be bolstered by ensuring placement with a foster family who cares for him or her until a safe, permanent family is located, whether through reunification with the birthfamily, long-term placement with relatives, or adoption. To the extent that youth in substitute care act out, foster parents and group home staff should receive sufficient training and support so they can intervene effectively with youth and avoid involving the police unless absolutely necessary.
A 2000 study by the Vera Institute revealed that group homes serving equivalent populations vary significantly to the extent that they rely on police involvement to "control" their populations; some facilities seem able and willing to handle most situations independent of police contact.
No One at Their Side
- Youth in foster care often appear in delinquency court with only an attorney, and not with family members.
Most youth with whom we spoke believed that juvenile court judges treated them more harshly than they treated youth who were not in foster care and who committed equivalent crimes. "We get looked at different," one young man said. "Like there's something wrong with us because we're in foster care."
Most judges we interviewed said that a youth who appears in court without family members is perceived as less stable than a youth who appears in court flanked by family members. One judge commented,
You're trying to look for some sort of stability. And there's an unfair perception that if a kid isn't in the home, he has less stability and you're more prone to have problems, even if it's a relative foster care placement. And so if the kid was with mom and dad, even if mom and dad weren't the best place for this child to be, it [would] probably [be] looked upon better than if the kid was in foster care. And so it probably is true that a judge [may think], "This kid isn't at home; he's gonna be a problem."
Most often, the young people we interviewed appeared in delinquency court with no adult other than a legal aid attorney. The absence of family support, the youth believed, reinforced negative assumptions the judges might have made. One young man remarked,
If someone comes, it shows the judge you have somebody--that they are still working with you. But if nobody shows up, it looks like nobody cares about you, and the judge thinks you are so bad that nobody wants to deal with you.
A juvenile court judge agreed, noting that when birthparents and foster parents "don't show up . . . it doesn't look real good, because without mom and dad there, in theory, the kid isn't all that stable." And when youth appear in court without active family participation, they are not candidates for many alternatives to detention programs that rely on family involvement.
One possible solution would be to notify individuals who have legal custody of the youth of all delinquency court proceedings, in writing when time permits, and to make them required parties to the case. The child welfare agency, which has primary responsibility for the youth and may play the closest role to a parent for the young person, should not abandon that youth when he or she becomes involved with the delinquency court. Other adults who are important figures in a youth's life--particularly foster parents, group home staff who are familiar with the youth, or the youth's guardian ad litem or court-appointed special advocate--should be encouraged to attend delinquency proceedings.
* Not his real name.
- Youth would benefit from improved systems coordination.
When a youth in foster care commits a delinquent act and crosses into the juvenile justice system, which system retains responsibility for that youth? In most cases, we found the child welfare agency retains case planning responsibility until a judge orders custody of the youth transfered to the juvenile justice system. For a youth who is detained, the child welfare system maintains a significant amount of responsibility, despite not having physical custody.
Many of the child welfare professionals with whom we spoke understood this process, yet some child welfare administrators acknowledged that an individual worker's level of commitment to and involvement with a youth might diminish once the youth is charged with delinquency. One administrator remarked, "When a kid goes into juvenile justice, [the caseworker] might keep the case open, but, for the most part, [the attitude is] 'no longer on my caseload, I am done with this one.'"
Clearly, many professionals in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems want to do the best job they can for the young people who are their responsibility. Our study indicates, however, when a youth is involved in both systems, much confusion exists about each system's specific responsibilities, even when professionals have the best of intentions. Probation officers and child welfare caseworkers, for example, may be uncertain of their roles and how to interact with the other system and their counterparts in that system. Many professionals said they didn't have a clear sense of the role of the "other" system.
Strategies to clarify the roles and duties of the numerous professionals who have some degree of accountability for youth involved in both systems, and to increase communication between the two, could do much to ensure that everyone understands and meets their responsibilities. Several jurisdictions have had success with memorandums of understanding to clarify the roles of the agencies and workers, interdisciplinary trainings, and designating a position to coordinate interaction between child welfare and juvenile justice agencies for dually involved youth.
As for Charles, he is now 22 and working as an activist, "talking to kids about how to change their lives around," as he says. He lives with a cousin in New York City. Charles talks about his desire to become a Marine, but his criminal record prevents him from accomplishing that dream. At 16, he was charged as an adult with first-degree assault following a fight, and he served four years in prison.
Charles offers advice for adults working with youth in foster care to help prevent them from moving into the juvenile justice system: "Talk to them about their future, expose them to ideas and books, and talk to them about things they might want to do one day."
Leslee Morris is a former Policy Analyst at Children's Rights in New York City. For more on this issue and the report from Children's Rights, see the Summer 2004 issue of The Link: Connecting Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare online.
FROM CWLA PRESS
Youth Involvement in the Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice Systems: A Case of Double Jeopardy?
- By Leslee Morris and Madelyn Freundlich
- CWLA Press (2004) - $16.95, Item #10250
- Five Easy Ways to Order!
- Online: www.cwla.org/pubs
- Mail: CWLA
PO Box 932831
Atlanta GA 31193-2831
- Call: 800/407-6273 (toll free)
- Fax: 770/280-4160
To Subscribe to Children's Voice Magazine
To Purchase this issue of Children's Voice
Back to Top Printer-friendly Page Contact Us