Our New Data on Dual System Youth Show Deep Collaboration, More Info Is Crucial

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dual system youth: lonely young woman of color sitting away from classmates and feeling depressed


Across the country, child welfare and juvenile justice systems now recognize that youth involved in both systems (i.e., dual system youth) are a vulnerable population who go unrecognized because of challenges in information-sharing and cross-system collaboration. These challenges currently prevent estimating the number of dual system youth nationally and limit our understanding of best practices for dual system youth.

dual system youth: Denise C. Herz (headshot), professor at Cal State LA, smiling woman with long blonde hair in beige jacket, patterned blouse.

Denise Herz

To address this gap in knowledge, the Office for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) funded the Dual System Youth Design Study to identify and define best practices for dual system youth and to design a methodology to estimate the incidence of dual system involvement.

For more information on dual status youth, go to JJIE Resource Hub | Dual Status Youth

The Jurisdictional Case Studies (JCS) Subcommittee and the Linked Administrative Data (LAD) Subcommittee were formed to address the project goals. The JCS group reviewed the literature and analyzed Georgetown University’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform’s Crossover Youth Practice Model (CYPM) data to develop a best practices rubric that could be used to capture the level of cross-system collaboration and use of best practices for dual system youth within jurisdictions. The LAD group focused its efforts on the analysis of linked administrative data drawn from Cuyahoga County, Ohio; Cook County, Ill., and New York City to pilot the use of such data to generate an estimate of dual system youth nationwide and examine the characteristics of dual system youth across these jurisdictions.

To drive the work of both subcommittees, the teams developed a theoretically derived framework of dual system youth pathways. Dual system youth represent the core of this framework, capturing all youth who touch both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. The framework then categorizes dual system youth into pathways using three criteria.

6 categories

dual system youth: Carly B. Dierkhising (headshot), assistant professor at Cal State LA, young woman with light brown shoulder-length hair, light blue top.

Carly B. Dierkhising

The first criterion was the timing of contact with both systems. Youth who touched both systems but not at the same time (i.e., nonconcurrently) were defined as dual contact youth, whereas youth who touched both systems at the same time (i.e., concurrently) were classified as dually involved youth.

A second criterion was the pathway by which dual contact and dually involved youth became dual system youth. The child welfare pathway comprised youth who entered (or had contact) with the child welfare system before the juvenile justice system, and the juvenile justice pathway included youth who entered (or had contact) with the juvenile justice system before the child welfare system. Finally, the last criterion was having a previous, but not currently open, child welfare case. Application of these criteria to dual system youth created six different categories:

  • Dual contact youth—child welfare pathway
  • Dual contact youth-juvenile justice pathway
  • Dually involved youth-child welfare pathway-no historical child welfare case
  • Dually involved youth-child welfare pathway-with a historical child welfare case
  • Dually involved youth-juvenile justice pathway-no historical child welfare case
  • Dually involved youth-juvenile justice pathway-with a historical child welfare case

Administrative data were then used to examine incidence rates of dual system involvement, based on the categories above, for a cohort of youth who had their first juvenile justice petition between 2010 and 2014 (2013 to 2014 in New York City) in all three study sites. The six categories guided the analysis of the administrative data in order to examine whether different pathways mattered for dual system youth. The administrative data outcomes are robust and extensive.

Here, we highlight only a few main findings of the work.

  • The prevalence of dual system youth was high, varying across sites from 44.8 percent in Cook County to 68.5 percent in Cuyahoga County and 70.3 percent in New York City.  
  • The most prevalent group was dual contact youth on the child welfare pathway in all sites (Cook County 72.6 percent; New York City 49.2 percent; Cuyahoga County 53.5 percent).  
  • Overall, dual system youth had higher rates of over-representation of African Americans and a higher proportion of females than found in the juvenile justice-only cohort. Dual system youth also had longer histories in the child welfare system, more placements and higher recidivism rates than youth in either the child welfare or juvenile justice system only.  

How rubric was built

For more information on Evidence-Based Practices, go to JJIE Resource Hub | Evidence-Based Practices

In parallel to the administrative data analyses, the JCS Subcommittee looked at data from jurisdictions participating in the Georgetown’s CYPM in order to understand what types of practices were most often implemented by participating sites. By using these data, in-person CYPM site meetings and using the knowledge of the experts on the subcommittee, we identified successes and challenges in engaging in cross-system collaboration for dual system youth from agencies and practitioners across a broad range of jurisdictions.

These findings, in turn, allowed us to systematically define potential best practices for dual system youth and build the OJJDP Best Practices Rubric for Dual System Youth based upon them. This rubric provides a foundation from which jurisdictions can assess their level of cross-system collaboration and identify areas for further development. The rubric includes 11 domains, or categories of practice, seen as integral to implementing and/or assessing cross-system collaboration and best practices for dual system youth. The OJJDP is scheduled to post it on the study’s website soon.

The Dual System Youth Design Study demonstrates that at least half of juvenile justice youth have touched the child welfare system at some point in their lives. This means the child welfare system and juvenile justice system serve a great number of the same youth and families. Since the data consistently show that contact with the child welfare system typically comes before juvenile justice contact, community prevention and the child welfare system can play a critical role in preventing youth from crossing into delinquency and the juvenile justice system.

For those who eventually find themselves in the juvenile justice system, cross-system collaboration is essential to preventing them from penetrating deeply into the criminal justice system. Prevention and intervention do not begin when the youth touches the juvenile justice system — it must begin much earlier and reflect a holistic understanding of the risks and needs of a youth and their family. Effectively addressing child safety in child welfare is synonymous with the prevention of substance abuse, mental health problems, teenage pregnancy, delinquency and many other social problems.  

At the federal level, this requires a formal recognition of the dual system population and a mandate to states to identify and collect data on these youth and fund prevention efforts. Currently, the language in the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act includes this recommendation but how states and jurisdictions put the mandate in place remains to be seen. Language in federal legislation is important, but it must also be married to funding that incentivizes the following: building better data systems, particularly for the juvenile justice system; training at the state and local levels related to developing and implementing integrated system practices, and evaluation of those practices.

Next steps

Effective practice depends on well-developed policies for dual system youth, which includes the recognition that dual system youth are a critical target population rather than a marginal one. This means that when youth touch both systems, systems need to identify them consistently and reliably as early as possible. Identification relies on the availability of systematic, electronic data collection in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems and the ability for those systems to communicate with one another.

Integrated data systems or crosswalks between data systems that are protective of confidentiality are essential for this purpose. Most jurisdictions do not have the ability to communicate across data systems and miss the identification of dual system youth. Those that do primarily focus on concurrent involvement rather than nonconcurrent involvement. In those cases, the findings of this study suggest that a large portion of dual system youth go unidentified when they are not simultaneously involved in both systems.

A commitment to building formalized communication and collaboration across child welfare and juvenile justice systems is fundamental to identify youth as soon as possible, assess their needs and provide comprehensive services and supervision. Ideally, this commitment starts at the federal level, is echoed at the state level and embraced at the local (typically county) level.

Utilizing the OJJDP Best Practices Rubric for Dual System Youth across jurisdictions is a proactive step in this direction. At the national level, data collected using the rubric would measure the extent of integrated system development currently in place in a wide cross-section of jurisdictions. Data from the rubric in individual jurisdictions could provide a baseline of practices and a guide for further development of practices within that jurisdiction.

Finally, as jurisdictions move towards systematic implementation of cross-system collaboration, partnerships with research and evaluation teams are imperative. Having researchers as part of the planning team can contribute to the development of best practices, a data collection plan and an overall evaluation plan. The goal is to validate these best practices in order to establish promising and evidence-based programs for dual system youth.

Denise C. Herz, Ph.D., is a professor in the School of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics at California State University Los Angeles where her primary areas of research are dual system youth and improving outcomes through integrated systems, and gang prevention/intervention program development and evaluation. Reports related to this work are located at www.juvenilejusticeresearch.com/projects.

Carly B. Dierkhising, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at California State University Los Angeles in the School of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics. Her work seeks to advance practices and policies for trauma-exposed and system-involved youth using applied research methods.

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