Bending State Systems to Care for ‘Crossover’ Youth

mwilson2013Last week I attended a one-day symposium on efforts to integrate juvenile justice and child welfare systems in roughly 30 cities and counties around the country. The initiative, funded by the MacArthur Foundation and OJJDP and spearheaded by the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform and RFK Children’s Action Corps, is really about one simple thing: responding to the fact that disproportionate numbers of teens involved in the child welfare system end up in the juvenile justice system. (Sometimes it happens the other way around, with arrest leading to discovery of abuse and neglect. But the focus of this day was on the former, which is the better researched and more common phenomenon.)

Overlap between the two populations is easy to understand. Traumatized teenagers sometimes behave in ways that lead to trouble, and that trouble can lead to more trouble. If the system is inflexible and punitive, youth can quickly reach a point of no return. It’s a problem just complex enough to have defied a clear solution. To their credit, though, the sites involved in the initiative have some progress to report. Some highlights:

  • Working with crossover youth means identifying them, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. Sites first had to get the two systems to share information, so that for the first time, a probation officer could find out if a teenager was or had been in the child welfare system.
  • The sites focused on reducing the number of older children in foster care, thereby reducing the pool of youth eligible for dual-system involvement.
  • Some sites took a hard look at what crossover youth were being arrested for (shockingly little in some cases, if ‘assault with a deadly weapon’ can mean throwing an avocado, as it did for one teenage boy in California).
  • One large site focused on where and why first arrests get made, leading it to consider the 911 calls made by its congregate care providers. One way to decrease those calls was to ramp up staff training around trauma-informed practice; another was to provide 24/7 crisis intervention as a fallback resource.
  • Another site worked hard to bring schools to the table (a Seattle-area school system reported phenomenal results with a ‘GED-plus’ vocational program that keeps youth who would otherwise drop out of school on an individual learning track that results in a diploma.)
  • Yet another site took strengths-based practice further than usual by connecting teens in the shallow end of the juvenile justice system with community resources that spoke to their passions. Cincinnati inventoried ‘all the stuff that was already there in the community’ and figured out how to connect youth to it.
  • One county in Texas began adjudicating juvenile cases differently, bringing workers from both systems together for hearings and pooling services from both to find the best and most readily accessible for the youth and his or her family, reorienting the approach to crossover youth away from one that simply maintains the youth toward one that actually seeks to improve his or her situation (as one site put it: ‘if it’s not helping, it’s not working.’

Perhaps most impressive, though, was an instruction the sites received from their funder early on — one not to spend a lot of time planning. Yep, that’s right — don’t spend a lot of time planning. Just try things. If something seems promising, then expand, formalize and evaluate. That’s a lesson that all agencies, no matter who they work with, can take to heart.

~ Melanie Wilson, Youth Catalytics Research Director (Feb. 2012)