Texas Task Force Looks at Youth Involved in Child Welfare, Juvenile Justice Systems

Lisa Jarrett presides over what’s known as the crossover docket in Bexar County, Texas, where she handles cases involving youth known to both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Jarrett says that bundling all the cases of a dual-status youth reduces replication of services and helps the child understand what they need to do to comply with the court — after all, with two separate cases come separate judges, court dates and orders.

Before the courts instituted a crossover docket, “It was all very messed up, and if I think it was difficult, can you imagine what it is for a family who doesn’t know how to work the system?” Jarrett said. “These kids have more trauma in their lives than most kids. They’re used to people leaving them. Caseworkers come and go, they don’t have any stability. In this program they have stability.”

The Texas Children’s Commission hopes to get the rest of the state in sync on these youths. Earlier this summer, the commission created a statewide task force to address the specific issues related to youth who are involved both with the child welfare system and the juvenile justice system.

These “dual status” youth, also sometimes called “crossover” youth, have particular challenges, many judges and experts agree, and in Texas, there is a pressing obstacle in the way of targeting them for services: No one knows exactly what these terms mean.

“Are you defining the crossover population as being simultaneously involved with the two systems? Are you defining them only if an active legal lawsuit is filed? If they’re simply being investigated by [Department of Family and Protective Services] while the child is in the justice system?” said Darlene Byrne, the 126th Judicial District Court judge who presides over the entire child welfare docket in Travis County. “That’s one of the big reasons for the task force — everybody is talking about this population but using very loose definitions.”

The primary goal of the task force, which was established as a result of a 2018 recommendation by the Texas Judicial Council’s juvenile justice committee, is to make a statewide definition for dual-status youth, in order to improve outcomes for these vulnerable kids. According to a 2015 report by the National Center for Juvenile Justice, upwards of half of the youth involved in the juvenile justice system may also be involved in the child welfare system, depending on how the term is defined.

These kids “experience earlier onset of delinquent behavior, higher rates of recidivism, frequent placement changes, poor permanency outcomes, and extensive behavioral health problems,” the report states.

When the child welfare system and the juvenile justice system operate independently and without clear communication, these youth often fall between the cracks, with the separate systems coming up with different and sometimes conflicting plans for the child. Some of the confidentiality statutes regarding juvenile cases mean that even CPS is left in the dark on some aspects of a child’s case, Byrne said.

This lack of collaboration can result in a missed opportunity to redirect a child, who is more likely to recidivate than those who are not dually involved.

“They’re very vulnerable, very traumatized, oftentimes they have limited, if any, parental support,” Byrne said. “So you’ve got two government systems trying to raise them, and that’s not the best parent for kids.”

In Texas, several of the largest counties have some type of court program targeting dual status youth. In Travis and Bexar counties, which encompass Austin and San Antonio, there are specific “crossover” dockets that allow the presiding judge to hear both the CPS case and the juvenile delinquency case of a dual status youth, as well as the entire case files of their siblings, until they age out or leave care.

In Bexar County, home to San Antonio, Jarrett said she has seen reduced recidivism as a result of the crossover docket, which was based on a model out of Georgetown University. But not every county in Texas gets the benefit of it – some counties are so small that a single judge presides over everything anyway, Jarrett says, and others institute a roving set of associate judges to handle their CPS cases.

Another aim of the task force is to develop a set of best practices that can be applied across the state and adapted for each county’s circumstances.

The task force includes subcommittees focused on definitions, judicial practices, training and local coordination, and will likely deliver their recommendations next year. Jarrett said the broader hope is to give dual status youth the benefit of understanding their circumstances, something the crossover docket has shown to do, in her experience.

“I can tell you that the whole process is more touchy-feely than a regular juvenile case,” Jarrett said of the crossover docket. “Our juvenile prosecutors have come to appreciate it. You hear all about their background, they become a real person, and you’re like, ‘OK, I’ll give them a break.’ You can’t give everybody a break, but you can give them a little more help where you can.”

Jarrett will co-chair this task force with Judge Gary Coley from McLellan County (Waco). No timetable has been set yet for the task force to issue recommendations.

North Dakota undertook a similar assessment of its handling of dual status youth in 2018. In early 2019, the state announced a plan to build a “rapid response” system for when foster youth are arrested.

Note: This story was updated on Sept. 19.

Roxanna Asgarian is a freelance journalist based in Houston.

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