In the past decade, we have increasingly learned about youth who enter the juvenile justice system with histories or active involvement in the child welfare system, now commonly referred to as dual status youth.
All of us in this field know these youth are at high risk of experiencing incredibly negative and costly outcomes. Right now you can easily see their faces and rattle off their names. We recognize it is these youth who end up in the juvenile correctional systems and adult prisons; it is these youth who are at risk of violent behavior that harms others as well as themselves.These outcomes have been a painful reality of my own professional experiences.
Despite this knowledge, the child welfare and juvenile justice systems largely continue to operate independently from one another. Given that there is now a trail of successful reform created by numerous jurisdictions and a growing number of committed professionals, how is it that we can justify this still-too-prevalent failure to implement collaborative multi-system practices and targeted treatment interventions aimed at impacting these youth in a positive way? It is time to acknowledge that the absence of a multi-systemic response is directly influencing negative outcomes for these youth. We must recognize that the shadow of culpability hovers over all of us, not just the youth and family.
Let me begin with an acknowledgement that this is challenging work. Nevertheless, there are data points that illustrate why it is imperative we take on this challenge.
First, let’s look at prevalence and recidivism. A staggering 67 percent of youth referred to the juvenile justice system in King County, Washington, during calendar year 2006 had at least some history of contact or involvement with the county’s child welfare agency. Dual status youth also started their delinquent careers a year or more earlier than youth without child welfare involvement. Within two years of their first offense, 70 percent of dual status youth with a history of legal activity or placement in the child welfare system had been referred back to the King County juvenile justice system, more than double the rate of recidivism for youth with no history of child welfare involvement.
Second, let’s look at costs. Dual status youth who experienced out-of-home placements in King County had an average of 12 placement changes during the 2006-2008 study period. Without question, these disruptions have a traumatic impact on the youth, but also cause communities to incur tremendous fiscal costs.Researchers estimated that the placement costs for one hypothetical dual status youth over the course of 27 months totaled approximately $38,000. According to anecdotal responses from practitioners across the country, this estimate is very low, but still quickly multiplies into the millions of dollars across a community’s youth serving system.
These findings are typical among other jurisdictions that have examined this issue. It is increasingly evident these young people are of significant consequence to every aspect of our child welfare, juvenile justice, education, and mental health systems of care and to our courts and our communities.
I have had the distinct privilege of working to address this issue with dedicated professionals across the country for the past 14 years. This experience has confirmed that there are real and significant challenges to the development of coordinated efforts on behalf of dual status youth.
The system barriers include organizational culture, data systems that preclude routine identification, a lack of appropriate and accessible resources and information sharing issues, among others. The youth themselves are admittedly challenging, demonstrating risks in multiple domains, including delinquency, placement stability, education, and behavioral health, among others. Ameliorating these risks, especially given the identified system challenges, is complex work.
But complex is different than impossible. With more and more jurisdictions successfully implementing systematic reforms, a growing number of dual status youth are being given a fighting chance to succeed. The Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice has developed numerous publications, tools and resources that provide guidance for solutions unique to each jurisdiction resulting in a number of replicable practices.
Among case workers, probation staff, court officials and judges who have embraced these innovative collaborative practices, it is increasingly their belief that to work in any other manner with these youth is “unethical.” I concur.
These youth are not just a single agency’s responsibility up until we grow fatigued of their recalcitrance and fail them into “the next system.”As youth-serving agencies, they are “our” responsibility.
Isn’t this why we committed our professional lives to this field? With the historical support of the MacArthur Foundation and its recent partnership with the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention resulting in new opportunities, advances in practice, and refined guidance to support the resiliency and strengths of dual status youth, we have an unprecedented opportunity to change the trajectory and interrupt the cycle for these vulnerable and troubled youth. Tomorrow may be too late to begin; today is the right time for leadership to take action.
Now that we know better, it’s time to do better.
John A. Tuell currently serves as the Executive Director for the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice at Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps. He is the co-author of the Guidebook for Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare System Coordination and Integration: Framework for Improved Outcomes (3rd edition); Dual Status Youth – Technical Assistance Workbook; and the Models for Change Information Sharing Tool Kit.