Every April marks another observation of Child Abuse Prevention Month and with it comes a national awareness campaign to prevent child abuse and to assist the victims.
Child abuse is such a horrific crime that the focus on identification and prevention often overshadows discussion of the connections between child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Many states operate child welfare service offices and probation departments as completely separate entities even though the correlation between child neglect and abuse and juvenile delinquency has been recognized since the 1970s. The systems may be separate but the caseloads are not.
Studies have shown that child maltreatment increases the likelihood of criminal behavior and arrest as a juvenile and as an adult, decreases the age of first arrest and increases the frequency of subsequent police contact. Younger children who are abused or neglected are more likely to commit serious, chronic and violent offenses.
In one study of adult prison inmates, 68 percent of the sample population reported multiple forms of abuse and neglect, including physical and sexual abuse. These findings — from multiple sources — are quoted in the “Guidebook for Juvenile Justice & Child Welfare System Coordination and Integration” written by Janet Wiig, John Tuell and Jessica Heldman.
The authors are now associated with the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice, which is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The Center is an excellent source of information regarding the need for system integration and the tools to help make it happen.
The Guidebook notes: “The two systems employ the same disciplines requiring some of the same body of knowledge … the same treatment providers and may have an overlap or duplication of services. Mental health needs are critical and people of color are disproportionately represented ... Neither system emphasizes prevention. Both are without a lot of public support and work with unwanted, unsupported populations with a history of systemic neglect.“
From my years on the bench in both branches of juvenile court, I have seen the difficulty of using the judicial system as the venue for confronting complicated family and social problems. Court actors, including judges, often lack understanding of the correlation of juvenile crime and abuse and neglect.
There is sometimes a perception that abused kids are good and that delinquents are bad. But when an abused kid commits a crime, he suddenly is seen by some as a dangerous miscreant. In both scenarios, parents are often seen as deficient failures.
Training opportunities for trauma, family engagement and evidence-based practices may be insufficient for a transient group of courtroom stakeholders. Court orders sometimes require programming that is unsuited to the risks for both parents and children or too many services that are impossible for families or kids to complete given the need to work or the lack of transportation.
Obviously, system change is needed. That change is happening in Indiana where Gov. Mike Pence recently signed legislation establishing a dual status screening tool and a dual status assessment team. The new law, effective July 1, will create teams of the participants and stakeholders in the presenting case, whether from child welfare or delinquency.
A team is required to report whether a delinquency case should be dismissed in favor of the filing of a child in need of services case or to some diversionary status. The judge determines whether the department of child services or probation services shall be the lead agency to supervise the dual status child and can order the departments to “work together and to provide any service available in either agency.”
Indiana lawmakers have taken a major step toward recognizing the realities of child crime as often being coincident with a history of child abuse or neglect. Their courtroom professionals — the ones who must make the law work — deserve support: training, resources and time to develop their skills in a new system.
The result can be healthier kids and families, greater public safety and wiser use of taxpayers’ dollars.
That will be real change and worthy of national focus during next April’s Child Abuse Prevention Month.
Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret., is chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, and an alternate member of Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. He was a trial court judge for 23 years before retiring as chief judge of Illinois' 2nd Circuit. He is a member of the Illinois Models for Change Coordinating Council, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Leadership Council, the Redeploy Illinois Oversight Board and the board of the state Juvenile Justice Initiative.