This story was reported by Gary Gately for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.
She was born to an incarcerated mother. She was repeatedly abused by relatives with whom she spent much of her early life.
By the time she turned 10, she had been sexually abused by an older brother, a pimp, who forced her into prostitution.
She didn’t last long at foster homes and ended up living in group homes in the Northern California area. She ran away from placements dozens of times and continued prostituting herself.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Alicia — whose real name is being withheld to conceal her identity — repeatedly landed in juvenile detention on solicitation or related charges.
But for most of her young life, the people responsible for helping her — in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems — hardly spoke to one another, much less coordinated services, because of the longstanding gulf between the two systems.
Alicia, now 18 and expected to be in jail through mid-January on prostitution and robbery charges, could be a poster child for kids known as “dual-status youth” — those involved in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
Their cases typically present enormous challenges: Many of the children are chronic runaways who have suffered from severe physical or emotional abuse, neglect and abandonment. And they typically come from troubled homes often beset by domestic violence, substance abuse and mental illness.
It’s hard to say how many children become entangled in both the juvenile justice and child welfare systems, partly because of the historical bureaucratic divides between the two systems.
Juvenile courts in the United States handled an estimated 1.2 million cases in which the youth was charged with a delinquency offense during 2011, according to the Pittsburgh-based, nonprofit National Center for Juvenile Justice, which collects and reports on juvenile court activity for the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. And the federal Children’s Bureau reported 3.8 million children in 2012 were the subjects of at least one report of abuse and neglect; for 686,000 children the maltreatment was substantiated.
Conservatively, tens of thousands of children a year are simultaneously involved in both the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. (Depending on the locale, these children are known by such terms as crossover, dual-jacketed, dual-involvement, dual-status supervision or dual-jurisdiction youths.)
More problems, complex needs
Research has shown dual-status youth are more likely to have higher detention rates, higher recidivism, more frequent placement changes, substantial behavioral health problems and poorer school performance than children not involved in both systems, according to a 2014 report by the Boston-based Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps at the RFK National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice. The center has conducted extensive research on dual-status youth.
“It’s about tragic outcomes for a very disadvantaged set of youth,” said John Tuell, executive director of the RFK Center.
“It’s a very difficult, difficult, challenging, often recalcitrant population of youth who come into the system that holds them accountable for their behavior — often without understanding the developmental aspects of that behavior.”
Like other experts, Tuell notes childhood trauma, often associated with abuse or neglect, can have far-reaching impacts on youths.
Among them: difficulty developing a strong, healthy attachment to a caregiver, problems with authority figures like teachers or police, lack of impulse control and violent responses to some situations.
The complex needs of dual-status youth underscore the importance of the juvenile justice and other child-serving systems to work together. Historically, they have not, not by any stretch.
Slow change, new reforms
That’s starting to change, albeit slowly.
Five states (Delaware, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Rhode Island and Vermont) now centralize administration of child welfare and juvenile justice systems to better coordinate services between the systems. Two additional states (Tennessee and Wyoming) integrate all facets except juvenile probation, and other states integrate juvenile justice and child welfare services within separate divisions of umbrella agencies.
And on a smaller scale, dozens of jurisdictions nationwide have undertaken reform efforts funded by nonprofits, in some cases with backing from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
The RFK Center has worked with 13 jurisdictions on efforts designed to reduce the gap between the two systems and better serve dual-status youths.
Neha Desai, an attorney who serves as policy adviser for the fledgling Dually Involved Youth Initiative in Santa Clara County, said it has helped bridge the divide between the juvenile justice and child welfare systems there.
“Probation officers and social workers have never, ever worked together before — because it was a combative relationship, and now it’s a collaborative one — or in many situations, there was just no communication,” Desai said.
Now, probation officers and social workers sit side by side in the new Family Resource Center in San Jose, Calif., which is adorned with photographs of activists like Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez. The center has resources for youth in foster care (or formerly in foster care), including healthcare workshops and assistance with housing, job applications and legal matters.
The social workers and probation officers work closely on dual-status kids’ cases to ensure they’re getting the help they need, which often results in providing “trauma-informed” care rather than simply punishing them when they have been victims of abuse or neglect.
How might that play out? Desai points to the example of a dual-status youth who had been sexually abused and later became ensnared in the juvenile justice system after continually running away from placements:
“What happened with this youth, and with so many youth who fall into this, is the child welfare worker feels like there’s nothing for this kid: ‘We have placed her over and over again. She runs from every placement. She’s involved in dangerous activities, and we can’t protect her, and she’s going to get killed out on the streets and she needs to have the intervention of the juvenile justice system in order to keep her safe.’
“The juvenile justice system says, ‘Are you kidding me? This is absolutely not a youth that belongs in the juvenile justice system. That would be criminalizing a kid for being a victim. I mean, they’re being sexually exploited, and you’re saying that they need to be detained in order to keep them safe, but that’s punishing them for being a victim.’”
Desai notes juvenile justice system adjudication can bring “collateral consequences” that can hurt a youth’s ability to get a job, housing or financial aid for higher education, for example, and says progressive juvenile justice systems do everything they can to keep kids out of the system when practical.
Often, she said: “The systems can’t agree so there’s this constant finger-pointing: ‘No, this is your kid.’ ‘No, this is your kid.’ There is an all-out fight between both systems for literally years and court hearing after court hearing where they can’t come to an agreement” on which system the youth should be in as part of a joint recommendation to present to the court, as required by California law.
“Meanwhile,” she said, “the kid is on the run or in and out of detention, out of school, being retraumatized over and over again, and neither system can figure out what to do.”
Complexities and costs
Despite a dearth of national data on dual-status youth, studies from several jurisdictions illustrate the daunting challenges these cases present:
- A 2011 study based on 4,475 dual-status youths in the Seattle area titled “Doorways to Delinquency” found one in five of the youths had gone AWOL from placements at least six times and 61 percent had done so at least once. The study, published by the Pittsburgh-based National Center for Juvenile Justice, also showed 70 percent of the dual-status youth with the most serious child welfare histories reoffended within two years after the study began tracking their delinquency careers.
- The 2004 Arizona Dual Jurisdiction Study, published by the National Center for Juvenile Justice, found that 204 dual-status youth in the Phoenix area averaged about 10.3 different placements. And 90 percent of them had spent time in large group homes or residential centers, as opposed to homelike settings or foster care.
- A 2011 study funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, “Young Adult Outcomes Of Youth Exiting Dependent Or Delinquent Care In Los Angeles County,” found that among 330 dual-status youth almost two-thirds had a jail stay within four years of exit from the juvenile systems. The study also found dual-status youths were far more likely to heavily rely on public services, less likely to attain higher education and less likely to be consistently employed.
- Costs associated with dual-status youths can be staggering, especially compared with the tab for community-based intervention to help troubled youngsters. A December study by the nonprofit, Washington-based Justice Policy Institute found the average annual cost of institutional placement of one youth was nearly $149,000.
- The Washington state “Doorways: study based on residential care in the Seattle area estimated its cost at $38,000 a year, though Tuell said he believes that is low.
The complexities and potential costs of dealing with dual-status kids notwithstanding, success stories show how breaking down barriers between the juvenile justice and child welfare systems can make all the difference in a child’s life.
Consider, for example, the case of a 14-year-old in Omaha, Neb. After the latest of many fights, this one on a school bus in fall 2013, he was ticketed by a school resource officer, and his case ended up before the Douglas County attorney.
The youth, whose name is being withheld to conceal his identity, had been severely abused by his mother, abandoned when he was 3 and placed in four or five foster homes by his teens. He had been arrested repeatedly on assault charges and failed to comply with probation requirements. In short, his prospects appeared dim.
“This kid’s an angry kid, which you understand when you hear about the circumstances of his life,” said Nicholas Juliano, the co-chair of Youth Impact! of Douglas County, a public-private organization shepherding the county’s dual-status reform.
The Omaha reform effort emphasizes sharing data between the juvenile justice and child welfare systems and bringing together representatives of both systems, along with parents or foster parents and, in this case, school officials, to improve prospects for crossover youths.
Thus, the county attorney, the boy’s foster father, social workers, school staff and a probation officer who had worked with the youth came together with an eye toward finding a solution that would keep him from being prosecuted for fighting.
The result: a written agreement that the youth would avoid fighting, attend school regularly, return to therapy for anger management and attend a program designed to help him resist the temptation to join a gang.
The agreement specified the assault charge would be dropped if the boy — an African-American, like a heavily disproportionate share of dual-status kids — complied with all requirements by the end of the 2013-14 school year.
He did. Now, he’s doing well in school and has a good shot at going to college.
Of course, some foster parents become unwilling to stand by their kids when they get caught up in the juvenile justice system, says Joseph P. Ryan, an associate professor of social work at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and an expert on child welfare and the juvenile justice system.
“The big challenge for a lot of foster kids is keeping them out of the juvenile justice system and keeping them at least in shallow end,” Ryan said. “On the juvenile justice side, that’s in-home probation. But for these kids, a lot of times, foster parents don’t want that. They didn’t sign up to work with kids who were involved with the justice system. They signed up to work with kids involved with abuse and neglect cases.”
Pointing to research he did in metropolitan Los Angeles in 2008, Ryan said children with open child welfare cases are more likely to get pushed deeper into the juvenile justice system than other kids.
He also found that dual-status kids were more likely to be sentenced to group homes, youth detention camp or a juvenile detention facility and less likely to receive probation than those with no child welfare history.
“Such environments increase the likelihood of associating with deviant peer groups and reinforcing antisocial attitudes, values, and beliefs,” wrote coauthor Denise C. Herz of California State University, Los Angeles. “Moreover, youth leaving these programs are at an increased risk of recidivism and of entering the adult correctional system.”
Involvement in the child welfare system also tends to cast doubt in juvenile court judges’ mind about the likelihood a youth can be rehabilitated, Ryan said.
Judges see patterns
Robert Anderson, a juvenile court judge in DuPage County, Ill., just outside Chicago, strives to keep an open mind about dual-status youths, but acknowledges a disheartening pattern.
“There’s a real different dynamic in my experience in these cases … first, they come with a kind of a unique set of challenges because typically there isn’t a lot of family support,” Anderson said. “There may be no family support of any kind.
“I couldn’t give you statistics on this, but my experience has been that in a first-time delinquency case, if a child walks in with two parents¸ statistically, the odds of me seeing them after this case go way down. They walk in with one parent, it’s a higher probability that I’ll see them several times, either for probation violations or new offenses, and if they walk in with no parents, which would mean the dually involved cases for the most part, they’re generally real troubled kids.
“They’ve faced a lot of rejection in their lives. They don’t have family out there that’s saying we love you, we’re here for you. And they’re in residential placements, and the quality of residential placements can vary as well. So they’re hit with a lot of challenges and typically they’ve experienced a lot of trauma.”
Still, in a career in which he has worked as an assistant state’s attorney for DuPage County, a private attorney, a juvenile court judge and a criminal court judge, Anderson said he prefers the juvenile bench.
“When I became a judge, I asked to be assigned to juvenile court, and I found it to be the most gratifying court call, even though it has many challenges,” Anderson said. “Every day you’ve got the chance to change the future. Every day you’ve got that chance to do so in a real positive way.
“It’s a very difficult life for these kids, and part of what I think our system does is tries to give them hope, tries to show them that even if the past has been bad, the future can be better.”
Anderson works closely with Kathy McNamara, a senior probation officer for juveniles in DuPage County who has supervised dual-status youths for 16 years.
The judge — and others in juvenile justice circles — say McNamara, by turns, takes on roles including surrogate mother, big sister and cheerleader to her young charges.
After boys in a group home complained about the bland institutional food, she helped them cook a more appetizing dish out of ground turkey, served with a sauce and side dishes of a vegetable and rice or pasta.
She also baked brownies with girls and showed them how to balance a checkbook.
Perhaps most important, she gives her time, undivided attention and gently dispensed wisdom to the youngsters she calls “my kids.”
In what can be the overwhelmingly sad story of largely invisible dual-status youths who often get lost between the cracks of bureaucracies, unsung heroes like McNamara and ambitious reforms across the country give John Tuell hope.
The firm belief that we can — and must — do better by dual-status kids has been a major focus of Tuell’s work for more than a decade. Tuell, who also served at OJJDP from 1997 to 2001, knows first-hand of what he speaks:
He worked from 1979 to 1997 in the Fairfax County, Va., Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court as a field probation supervisor, intake officer and administrator of a 22-bed residential treatment facility for serious and chronic juvenile offenders.
“We’re making terrific inroads,” Tuell said. “… What we have to do in this work and what we stress in our efforts at RFK now is a balance of accountability and an understanding of the behavior and the causes for that behavior that we think gives us a better long-term chance for accountability while also perhaps interrupting any further involvement in the system.”
Many dual-status children end up in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems because they’re being raised by teenage parents, said Melissa Sickmund, director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice.
Contrary to public perception, the overwhelming majority of child maltreatment cases center on neglect allegations, not physical and sexual abuse, Sickmund said.
“You have a lot of kids that have kids, and no one has told them how to be a parent,” she said. “They can barely take care of themselves, let alone someone else. Just think of 15-year-old kids. They want to go out with their friends. They may leave children alone unsupervised. They may make unwise decisions. They may not be able to have the wherewithal to feed themselves, house themselves, all this stuff that adults do.”
Compounding matters, many of them abuse drugs, Sickmund said, adding, “I will hazard a guess that it’s a fair statement to say drug addicts do not make very good parents.”
The challenges of dual-status cases also play out in northern Minnesota’s rural Beltrami County, with a population of 46,000, one-fifth of them Native Americans.
The county, afflicted with high rates of addiction, poverty and other social ills, began working with dual-status youths in September as part of a reform effort for which it received guidance from the RFK and Georgetown centers.
“So we are starting to recognize that we don’t want to hit these kids with a double whammy — like, ‘You were dealt a bad hand and you’re already at risk, and now we’re going to push you into court and that’s going increase your risk too,’” said Elizabeth Raile, intervention program specialist for Beltrami County.
Raile recalled a teenage girl whose father came home drunk and hit her mother with an iron skillet, knocking her unconscious. The girl’s 3-year-old brother sopped up some of the mother’s blood with a dishtowel. The girl was taken into custody for being a runaway and for drug use, Raile said.
“In my head, I’m thinking, ‘This kid has been witness to a horrible and terrible thing, and we’re criminalizing a girl who doesn’t know how to cope,’” Raile said.
And in Outagamie County in northeast Wisconsin, another RFK Center dual-status reform site, Melissa Blom, manager of the Children, Youth and Families Division of the Department of Health and Human Services, also said it’s time to view dual-status cases differently.
“We work with them in our traditional child-protection way, keeping them safe, monitoring them, but are we really getting at the core of helping and healing from their traumatic scars?” Blom said. “The piece we really need to start focusing on is what they’re doing with all this trauma. How are they coping?”
She said such intervention came too late for Brandon, a Native American youth whose last name is being withheld to protect his identity.
He is one of five children whose biological mother had tried to kill her abusive partner by driving a car into a brick wall when Brandon was about 6. His father took custody, then lost it after he began beating the child.
Brandon then lived with an uncle, who gave up on him after the youth stole a truck and a gun from his uncle’s home and landed in juvenile prison at age 14.
“The painful part was I could see the writing on the wall,” Blom said. “Brandon has a huge hole in his heart.”
Of dual-status kids whose brains are altered by trauma, she said: “We owe it to them to start focusing on healing them rather than punishing them. I don’t think people in America know what maltreatment is, don’t know the face behind it. It’s getting people to understand cumulatively what’s happened to them over many years.”
Hurst, the senior research associate at the National Center for Juvenile Justice, alluded to the book “The Catcher in the Rye” in speaking about dual-status youths.
“Can we stop that trajectory?” he said. “Can we do a better job? Can we keep them from kind of falling off of a cliff into a less-than-bright future?”
Your support is crucial!
Our newsroom needs to raise $121,000 by end of the year so we can hold the power accountable and strengthen our democracy in 2024. Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising. We depend on individuals like you to sustain quality journalism.