On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee, as part of National Foster Care Month held a hearing, Supporting Youth in the Foster Care and Juvenile Justice Systems. In opening the hearing Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) said that he hoped the hearing would result in some new information and strategies to better coordinate services between the child welfare system and the juvenile justice system.

Grassley said that far too many of the youth included in the total 415,000children in foster care were dually involved with both systems.  One of the problems he highlighted was a lack of coordination or interaction.  One of the first challenges is identifying which youth are dually involved.  He said that there is a disproportionate number that are minority, have special education needs, mental health needs and chemical dependencies issues.

The three witnesses included Ms. Sonya Brown  who was speaking on behalf of Boys Town, New Orleans.  She spoke about her experiences that led to both the juvenile justice and foster care systems.  Her experiences ran the gamut from foster care, being separated from siblings, some success with education only to be interrupted by the juvenile justice system that jailed her due to a status offense, incarceration at 17 with adult criminals, to eventual success due to the efforts of dedicated workers.

Brown spoke to the need for education for juveniles and for Congress to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).  Specifically, she called for:

Encourage states to recognize and treat trauma across all systems that serve children and to have those systems communicate and collaborate;

  • With the high rates of crossover between foster care and juvenile justice, support interventions to help families deal with mental illness and substance abuse; and
  • For young people in the foster care, encourage a continuum of effective services that provide the right care, in the right way, at the right time, for the right length of time so that foster youth can remain stable and supported in the foster home or placement that best meets their needs.

Ms. Lisa Nelson, a Juvenile Court Officer from Iowa focused on crossover youth or children subject to the child welfare system due to issues of abuse or neglect who enter the juvenile justice due to a delinquent act.  Her work involves preventing that crossover.

Nelson testified that these young people are a traumatized population who, when assessed by the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) screen, produce scores that are off the charts.  She sees children with long standing mental health issues who often engage in self-harm and others who are dually diagnosed and who self-medicate.  These young people have a large number of adults who enter their lives as decision makers as a result of system contact, who may have different agendas.  These children get lost in the educational system due to numerous placements and lose credits they’ve earned.  In Woodbury County, these youths are often the result of failed adoptions.  When this occurs, these young people crossover because of a complete collapse of his or her support system.

Nelson cautioned that the redesign of the Iowa Child Welfare System shifted the focus of services and funding to children ages 0-5 which then created a gap in services for older adolescents.  This meant that this older population, often do not have appropriate services or the proper dosage of the services.

Mr. Jeff Lind, Social Services Division Director, Beltrami County Minnesota discussed an on-going effort in that part of northern Minnesota to work with tribal youth involved with the two systems.   A key strategy identifies youth through the county attorney’s office and then contacts with the local social services agencies to see if the youth is involved with other services. If the youth is involved the county attorney contacts the case manager to see if there were any extenuating circumstances.  This might include a mental health crisis, a traumatic event that may have triggered behavior, or a child’s disability such as autism.  After the attorney reviews the case with the case worker they decide whether to bring the child to court. This can then result is a specific strategy, goals and treatments.

After the Court has ordered a disposition the juvenile probation agent and the children’s services worker will meet together with the juvenile and their family to complete a targeted Goals and Objectives form. While both the probation case and the children’s services case remain open, monthly progress meetings will occur and will include the child, their family and both case managers.

Ms. Macon Stewart, Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, Georgetown University, offered an overview through statistical profiles.  A majority of these youth are males but the proportion of females is greater than in the general delinquency populations; A significant number have special education issues, challenges in the school setting, and substance use and/or mental health problems; a disproportionate number are children of color; a high number of these youth have witnessed domestic violence and have parents with a history of  criminal  justice system involvement,  mental health problems, or substance  abuse      problems; many are residing in a group home or congregate care settings  at the time of arrest; crossover youth are on average between 14 and 16 years old at first offense.