Why Juvenile Justice Reform Needs Child Welfare at the Table

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Juvenile justice reform cannot happen without child welfare as an engaged partner. Research has demonstrated that as many as two-thirds of youth involved in the juvenile justice system have a maltreatment background.

If we know that children involved in the child welfare system are at greater risk of truancy, behavior disorders, mental health disorders and delinquency, shouldn’t we address those issues in their early years and work towards prevention and building resiliency rather than managing them later in life when the problems are compounded?

For many years the child welfare system has focused heavily on safety and permanency without sufficient concern for emotional wellbeing and the ability to be successful as young adults. Tasked with an overwhelming amount of legal and practice mandates and high caseloads, it can be difficult to convince child protective systems that averting youth from the juvenile justice system is part of their role.

Yet, as a dedicated child welfare leader, I have seen the devastating impact of unaddressed trauma on generations of families. If we want positive outcomes for children in all the systems that serve them, we have to work together.  

I ask my child welfare colleagues across the country to get inspired and involved in tackling the issue of delinquency prevention. Child welfare agencies are in a vital position to impact whether abused and neglected children will enter or progress through the juvenile justice system. Developing a partnership with juvenile justice is necessary and logical. Our systems already intersect in many ways. Working together can combat the effects of trauma and result in rewarding outcomes for the youth we serve.    

As part of a dual status youth technical assistance grant from the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps in 2011, I spent two days exploring the files of youth in the juvenile justice division to get a better understanding of them. Of the youth with open juvenile justice cases, 64 percent had a child maltreatment background.

Even more dismal was the fact that child protection had extensive involvement with these families, some of them open for years with numerous child abuse or neglect referrals that warranted investigation. We served these families over an extensive period of time, but our efforts were not effective at diverting these youth from the juvenile justice system.  

Additional data collection revealed that dual status youth had much earlier contact with child protection, committing their first offense at least two years earlier than the general population; had been identified with mental health concerns but not referred to treatment; and had complex trauma histories. Despite these revelations, in practice our staff were frustrated — pointing fingers in determining whose responsibility it was to serve youth rising up in the delinquency system as a result of their pervasive neglect, abuse and trauma histories.

When a youth becomes out of control or commits offenses, law enforcement gets involved and referrals are made to the juvenile justice system. While immersed in child protection work, it never occurred to me that preventing delinquency was also a part of my job. Old views held that a youth had to be held accountable and the juvenile justice system alone was equipped to develop the right consequence and treatment/intervention. For a child welfare worker, it was frankly a welcome relief to have another system take over.

When I paused to listen to the stories of young adults who were charged as youth, I realized how doors to graduation, employment and stable housing were shut for them because of decisions they made as a child. When I read the research on trauma and understood how it manifests in delinquent behaviors, and how juvenile justice involvement can exacerbate the trauma, I recognized the harm that can be done within that system.

Having a deeper understanding of the ramifications of juvenile justice system involvement can aid in motivating child welfare staff to take more direct responsibility to prevent actual referrals. All systems will need to work together to address the effects of neglect and traumatic events for a child. There is opportunity for the juvenile justice, law enforcement, education and mental health systems to respond earlier to create a more responsive system.  

It takes commitment and steadfastness to address the issues that face dual status youth. Bringing systems together requires chipping away at old stereotypes and managing the culture within an organization.  As a leader in child protection there are ways to manage this. Leadership and staff must be educated about negative outcomes for youth who are maltreated and come into contact with the child welfare system.

There must be an understanding of ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and how early and effective intervention with youth who experience trauma is an antidote. Work with staff to identify repeat families in the child protection system with whom traditional responses do not work and use data to determine what their unmet needs are.

I encourage my fellow child protection colleagues to reach out to juvenile justice leadership and develop routine cross-system training and communication about the youth both systems serve. In our agency, both CPS and juvenile justice staff attended Family Finding training. Together they worked this model with dual status youth with wonderful outcomes. Youth coming out of corrections with no place to go were able to successfully reunify with extended family. They became so inspired by the outcomes that the team developed internal training to sustain the effort. Sharing in the successes of the youth we work with creates a sense of urgency and a “must do” attitude. Staff-generated enthusiasm for transformation goes further than any message a manager can send.   

Child welfare leaders need to come to the table in juvenile justice reform work.  If through these efforts one youth returns home or avoids the legal system, it was worth it!  It takes one conversation with juvenile justice leadership and a decision that the work can’t wait. Children can’t wait.   

For more information, visit http://rfknrcjj.org/announcing-cwla-rfknrcjj-partnership/ .

Melissa Blom, MSW, is the division manager for the Outagamie County (Wisconsin) Department of Health and Human Services. Melissa also serves as a member of the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice’s Dual Status Youth Practice Network.

2 thoughts on “Why Juvenile Justice Reform Needs Child Welfare at the Table

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