Child Welfare Ideas from the Experts #9: Federal Attention on Crossover Youth

Lino Peña-Martinez, 25, a graduate of the University of California-Santa Barbara. Photo by Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute

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 Lino Peña-Martinez, 25, a graduate of the University of California-Santa Barbara.

The Proposal

Peña-Martinez aims to sharpen the federal focus on dual-system involvement, when youth involved in the child welfare system are also involved in the juvenile justice system. He would start things by requesting that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) study the prevalence and circumstances of dual-status youth.

Peña-Martinez would also increase funding of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act to establish a pot of money states could use to “improve prevention programs for multi-system youth.” And he would require that a state’s federal child welfare plan include information about the agency’s efforts to prevent foster youth from entering the juvenile justice system.

The Argument

The issue warrants attention, Peña-Martinez said, because it is a real blind spot in our knowledge of child welfare outcomes.

“No national data exists on how many kids cross over from child welfare to the juvenile justice system and vice versa,” he argues. “The limited data available suggests that the prevalence of multisystem involvement varies greatly by pathways and the degree of involvement with the juvenile justice and child welfare systems.”

In Their Own Words

“It was far too easy for me to become involved with the juvenile justice system. As a multisystem youth, I experienced firsthand the coordination and prevention failures of the both the juvenile justice and child welfare systems — but that did not define me. As a young person with many struggles stemming from the trauma of my childhood, it’s almost as if I was destined to become a multisystem youth.”

The Chronicle’s Take

As have a few of his fellow FYI from years past, Peña-Martinez takes on the tricky task of

Boundless Futures, the most recent set of policy proposals from the Foster Youth Internship Program

coordinating the response of child welfare and juvenile justice systems. In 12 states, those two operations live in the same agency. In the rest of the country, they are either independent or parts of different bureaucracies.

So while the issues at play in both systems are often similar – trauma, families in crisis, behavioral health – the two operations often remain austere despite growing recognition that they shouldn’t be.

Peña-Martinez proposes a GAO study that focuses on “understanding the scope of the issue nationally,” and we could not agree more. We would hope the scope of such a report would get to the nature of dual status involvement, which it seems to us can occur in three ways:

  • A youth is arrested directly in connection with his or her presence in the child welfare system (i.e., behavior in a placement, running away). In other words: child welfare involvement leading to juvenile involvement.
  • A youth who is arrested ending up in the child welfare system after an assessment of his or her situation. In other words: juvenile justice involvement leading to child welfare involvement.
  • Involvement in both systems where one has little to do with the other. Nothing is that clear-cut in life, of course, but meaning one system did not directly precipitate involvement in the other.

It is probably unlikely that the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act gets amended anytime in the next five years, since it was just updated for the first time in decades. That said, it doesn’t take an act of Congress for the Justice Department to set up a demonstration grant program that helped interested states get a better plan on serving with crossover youth. The most rational scope of such a program at the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention would probably be to focus on juvenile justice response when child welfare partners actually rely on law enforcement to intervene because of child behavior.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at