Child Welfare Ideas from the Experts #2: Federal Monitoring of Juvenile Justice Involvement

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. Each of the FYI participants crafted a policy recommendation during their time in Washington, D.C. Today we highlight the recommendation of Michael Teresa Mellifera, a sophomore at Catholic University.

The Proposal

Mellifera calls for two federal actions aimed at decreasing the likelihood that youth in foster care develop burdensome juvenile justice records and experience incarceration.

First, she would include Disproportionate Crossover Youth Contact (DCYC) as the fifth core requirement for state compliance with the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). States would have to continue to gauge DCYC and demonstrate an effort to address it where it existed. For each core requirement, states currently risk the loss of 20 percent of their JJDPA formula funding if they are noncompliant.

Mellifera suggests a 15 percent penalty for her DCYC proposal. More likely, the addition of a fifth requirement would prompt the Justice Department to just smooth out the penalty to 16 percent for each noncompliance (80 percent divided by five, with 20 percent of the funding guaranteed for overall compliance as is currently the rule).

Second, Mellifera would have Congress require a “joint-commission tasked with developing uniform federal standards for graduated sanctions systems and diversion program eligibility, with particular focus on crossover youth issues.”

This commission would be created jointly by the Justice Department and the Department of Health and Human Services, and would include a roster of state and local law enforcement, nonprofit leaders, judges and advocates.

The Argument

Michael Teresa Mellifera, a student at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

Mellifera cites research that, compared to their peers, crossover youth – those involved in foster care and juvenile justice systems – have a “higher number of juvenile delinquency filings; a higher number of lengthy detention stays; a higher chance of being placed in secure confinement; a higher rate of recidivating; and a higher rate of admission into the adult justice system.”

She argues that one reason foster youth tend to penetrate deep into the juvenile justice system is the lack of coherent standards for eligibility when it comes to sanctions other than incarceration and residential confinement.

“The juvenile justice system is often biased in its decisions due to the perception that crossover youth are higher risk or because they do not have a biological parent advocating for them,” Mellifera writes.

In Her Own Words

“When I was fourteen, my brother and I were separated and permanently estranged from one another by court order. This was due to his behavioral issues in our placements and his increasing interactions with law enforcement for petty crimes.

… Though incarceration was intended to end his criminal career before it started, it only exacerbated his pre-existing trauma by confining him to institutional settings, which restricted his access to adequate education, mental health services, and community support. Incarceration led my brother to become more deeply entrenched in criminal activity after his release.”

The Chronicle‘s Take

When it comes to Mellifera’s notion of a fifth core requirement in JJDPA, there is a short-term political problem. The bill is long, long overdue for reauthorization, a bill has been marked up in both chambers of Congress, and currently only Senate approval stands in the way of locking in some long-negotiated changes and updates to the bill. At this point, it’s unlikely that anything other than a minor caveat without financial consequences could squeak into the Senate version.

But Mellifera’s idea is not without precedent. There were three core requirements until 1992 when Congress added Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC), a provision that states would have to make efforts aimed at figuring out if their local justice systems were treating minority youth differently than white youth, and then do something about it.

The DMC requirement was a response to increasing agreement that non-white youth made up a disproportionate number of juvenile arrests, and ended up in the deepest end of the system (juvenile prisons) at a disproportionate rate.

It does appear that this same consensus is now being reached about foster youth: that this tiny fraction of the youth population comprises an alarming number of juvenile arrests, residential placements, and incarcerations. So long term, it could be reasonable to see such a provision included.

A first step might be to start the process of collecting state data on the subject. What we know about the nexus between child welfare and juvenile justice is currently rooted in local research projects; a national and state-by-state picture of crossover youth could open the door to figuring out best practices – and worst ones.

Click here to read the full report, including all of the FYI proposals.

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John Kelly
About John Kelly 1135 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.