Crossover youth is more than the latest buzzword in the often jargon-filled lexicon of juvenile justice. Instead, the term reflects a growing understanding of the dynamic between child abuse, neglect and delinquency. This population of young people has contact with both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
Addressing child welfare is challenging enough, let alone when joined with deeper problems of delinquency. Abused young people often carry scars of trauma and pain, which can inform delinquent behavior that leads to subsequent contact with the juvenile justice system. However, the complex challenges and needs of crossover youth often prove too much for each system alone to address. Practitioners must find a reasonable solution that ameliorates these issues or crossover youth may re-enter the child welfare system or go on to commit more serious offenses. Instead, an integrated approach, which builds on each system’s unique strength, is the ideal approach.
Who are these young people?
The exact number is unknown, given the absence of rigorous data collection, although estimates range from 9 percent to 29 percent of those in the child welfare system. A recent webinar, by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), detailed how a majority of these young people suffer from wide-ranging challenges, which include education difficulties, mental health issues and sexual abuse.
Another major contributing factor is that many suffer from placement instability. A recent study of dually involved youth in LA County found that 55 percent had been relocated between group homes and foster care placements three or more times during their lifetimes.
Why do crossover youth matter?
The crossover population represents a unique challenge for both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. A 2001 study by the Vera Institute of Justice found the likelihood of detention for foster youth awaiting trial for misdemeanors or minor felonies was 10 percent higher than non-foster care youth. Moreover, they frequently suffer amid a compartmentalization of system care and oversight. For example, juveniles who make contact with the justice system may lose access to welfare services and their respective case manager, resulting in a disruption to their therapeutic services.
The long-term consequences for crossover youth are significant with many suffering higher incidence of drug use and exacerbated mental illness. The aforementioned study of LA County also found that crossover youth have a higher recidivism rate than non-crossover youth, and more than 30 percent have new maltreatment referrals following their arrest. These young people may not only commit offenses as adults, but may well perpetuate the cycle of maltreatment as parents.
What can be done?
Fortunately, juvenile justice professionals are increasingly recognizing the unique situation of crossover youth and are developing system tools sensitive to the specifics of their problem. Law enforcement officials, judges, and child welfare practitioners are beginning to collaborate on how to best meet the needs of this unique population early enough to offset the substantial human and fiscal cost. In addition, reform-minded foundations and non-profits have initiated pilot technical assistance programs across the country, in the hopes of creating replicable best practices. The recent OJDDP webinar featured speakers advocating for multi-disciplinary teams to bridge the system-wide gap, an approach shared by others.
For example, the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, at Georgetown University, developed The Crossover Youth Practice Model, which is currently used at 11 jurisdictions across the country. A central feature of the model is to encourage multi-agency collaboration across the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Such coordinated case management and supervision fosters family engagement and youth permanency. This directly addresses the instability that leads many young people from the child welfare system to the juvenile justice system. In California, the Sierra Health Foundation, through their Positive Youth Justice Initiative, has also taken a lead in fostering county-level innovation to address this issue.
In the complicated world of juvenile justice, there is not always a clear distinction between young people in the child welfare system and those in the juvenile justice system. Abused and neglected young people come into contact with the justice system due to any number of contributing factors. For each system to work best, they must first understand whom crossover youth are and develop necessary treatment and support models. This requires child welfare and juvenile justice departments to collaborate on best practices, streamlined case management and more effective data collection.
Such partnerships bring a sense of stability and continuity of care that crossover youth so often lack. Moreover, this represents a promising development in juvenile justice, where youth are recognized for their potential to succeed beyond a history of neglect and abuse.
Brian Goldstein is a member of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ)’s policy team and a graduate student at San Francisco State University. His expertise is on political trends in criminal justice reform.
*Photo at top by Flickr user Laura4Smith