Child Welfare Ideas from the Experts, #11: Identifying, and Tracking, Foster Youth

The Chronicle of Social Change is highlighting each of the policy recommendations made this summer by the participants of the Foster Youth Internship Program (FYI), a group of 12 former foster youths who have completed congressional internships.

The program is overseen each summer by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, with support from the Sara Start Fund.

Each of the FYI participants crafted a policy recommendation during their time in Washington, D.C. Today we highlight the recommendation of Erica Ontiveros, 23, a master’s student at UCLA.

The Proposal

Erica Ontiveros, 23, a master's student at UCLA. Photo: CCAI
Erica Ontiveros, 23, a master’s student at UCLA. Photo: CCAI

Ontiveros seeks amendments to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act that sharpen federal and state attention to the unique issues faced by youth involved in both the child welfare and juvenile justice system.

First, Ontiveros would establish a federal minimum standard that “state courts, juvenile delinquency agencies and child welfare agencies” ascertain the dual status of a youth within the first 14 days of a juvenile delinquency charge.

She would also have states capture and share information about those youth who are dual status. Congress would establish a “Federal Data Gathering Unit for Dual-Involved Youth” to collect and analyze this new information.

The Argument

Youth who are known to the child welfare system – particularly those in foster care – are statistically more likely to have contact with the juvenile justice system than the youth population at large.

“In foster care the combination of instability and uncertainty may lead to serious consequences,” Ontiveros writes. “When foster youth first encounter the juvenile justice system, they need timely identification and access to services that help avoid negative outcomes.”

This is unlikely at present time, Ontiveros argues, for two reasons. First, “the juvenile justice system and the child welfare system operate with little collaboration regarding dual involvement.”

Second, no government entity demands numbers on this group of vulnerable youth, so there isn’t much in the way of good data about it. Ontiveros cites a 2013 study from the Shubert Center of Child Studies that found 30 percent of youths placed in foster care for the first time after the age of nine received a juvenile delinquency filing afterward.

In Her Own Words

2016 participants in the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s Foster Youth Internship Program. Photo: CCAI
2016 participants in the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s Foster Youth Internship Program. Photo: CCAI

“During my time in foster care, at the age of 15, I was placed in a temporary group home for three months. While there, I witnessed many youth with behavioral problems moving between the group home and juvenile hall … which was conveniently located right next door.

Many of these youth acted out with frustration, anger or fear. … Later, I learned that many of these same youth had spiraled down after their first encounter with delinquency and committed actions ultimately leading to incarceration and a criminal record.”

The Chronicle‘s Take

Ontiveros’ proposal looks at this issue from the lens of youth in the child welfare system who cross over into the juvenile justice system. That is of course appropriate to the task at hand, promoting policies that would improve the lives of children in foster care and adoptions.

But she is actually seeking changes to federal legislation that pertains to the juvenile justice system, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). This is the act that sets core minimum standards for state juvenile justice policy, and states face cuts in federal funds for not living up to those standards.

So the agency on the hook to take action will be the one that stands to lose federal funding if it doesn’t happen. In most states, that’s the juvenile justice agency.

One potential snag: those agencies are probably not the best fit for notifying the child welfare system any time a foster youth is arrested. The way some systems are set up, those juvenile justice agencies might have limited or no contact with many of those youth.

The court, on the other hand, would be aware of pretty much any youth who was arrested with the exception of those who are diverted or just sent home by police without being processed. So our sense is that juvenile courts would be the best fit if you were looking for an entity that could notify the child welfare agency in a timely manner anytime a foster youth was involved in a delinquency proceeding.

There are only four minimum standards at the moment. If there was a time to add another it would be now; the JJDPA is long overdue for reauthorization. Congress would not add another caveat to the legislation lightly; legislators would need to be convinced that the failure to note and track dual-status youth was a very serious problem for the juvenile justice system.

And legislators should feel that way. The RFK National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice estimates that two-thirds of the juvenile justice population in America has had some involvement with the child welfare system; not necessarily foster care, but some contact.

For proportional comparison, there are about 74.2 million people under age 18 in America, and in 2014 about 9 percent (6.6 million) were involved in an allegation of maltreatment. That’s a lot of juveniles coming from a small cross-section of America’s youth.

And since the publication of the FYI proposals, it looks like at least a couple of senators do grasp the significance, including one of the most powerful senators on both child welfare and juvenile justice issues.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced a bill this month that would establish modest federal grants to help states collect information on dual-status youth and develop policies for better managing them. The bill also has a Democrat co-sponsor, Gary Peters (Mich.).

If that bill passes, or gets folded into the effort to reauthorize JJDPA, Congress will have made an important step towards Ontiveros’ proposals.

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John Kelly
About John Kelly 1128 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.