On paper, the profile of young people caught up in both the juvenile justice and foster care systems in Los Angeles County is disheartening.
“Crossover youth,” as they are referred to, are likely to have experienced abuse or neglect, to have been arrested for a violent or threat-related offense while living in a group home, and to have substance abuse and mental health issues. In theory, dual-system involvement should mean these young people get twice as much attention and twice as many services.
But dependency attorneys and researchers are finding that although these young people need the most help, they frequently fall victim to a game of policy hot potato, with each system assuming the other is responsible for assistance.
One Los Angeles-based law firm is working to change that on the ground, while in Sacramento legislators are amending a bill that will make it easier for crossover youth to access the benefits of extended foster care.
Children’s Law Center of California, the nonprofit law firm that represents all children in foster care in Los Angeles and Sacramento Counties, launched a grant-funded Crossover Advocacy and Resource Effort (CARE) pilot program in 2014 to make sure crossover kids get the services they need.
“Everyone just wants to point fingers at everyone else,” said Barbara Duey, a supervising attorney at CLC who led the creation of the CARE Unit. “These kids fall through the cracks.”
Last fall, a 16 year-old Los Angeles County crossover youth we’ll call Jake was moved from a foster home across town to a new foster home and a new school.
The new school would not enroll Jake, so he spent the next four months out of the education system. And despite the fact that attending school was a condition of his probation, Jake’s probation officer did not intervene.
“The social worker and the probation officers didn’t even know,” Duey said. “Had we not been involved, he would have been in violation of his probation because he wasn’t in school.”
Foster youth drop out of high school at a rate three times higher than that of their peers in the general population, according to The Invisible Achievement Gap report released in 2013. Only 40 percent of L.A.’s crossover youth enroll in any type of college, and a much smaller number actually complete degrees, according to the 2011 adult outcomes study by Dennis Culhane of the University of Pennsylvania.
In a 2005 study examining the relationship between placement instability and juvenile delinquency, Joseph Ryan of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that delinquency rates for youth with a substantiated report of maltreatment in their past were 47 percent higher than those without reports.
In 2008, Ryan partnered with Denise Herz from California State University, Los Angeles, to analyze data from Los Angeles County’s Superior Court and the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) to better understand the characteristics and outcomes of crossover kids in Los Angeles.
Herz’s team at Cal State-L.A. is now assisting with the evaluation of the CARE Unit. Herz has also been tapped by the county to track service referrals and outcomes for crossover youth. The findings so far mirror what Herz and Ryan found years earlier. In her preliminary report to the county’s board of supervisors in 2014, Herz found that almost all the youth monitored had mental health or substance abuse issues, and two-thirds of the group struggled with both conditions.
The most recent report confirmed the earlier findings, and also showed that African-American youth are even more over-represented within the crossover system than in the child welfare or juvenile justice systems individually. There are more females in L.A.’s crossover population (about 35 percent) than in the juvenile justice system as a whole (where females make up only about 20 percent of the population).
As might be predicted, the report found that crossover youth and their families have had multiple contacts with child welfare. These kids tend to stay in the system for about five years.
The creation of CLC’s CARE Unit was driven by Herz’s and Ryan’s research.
“When we built this program, we’d been working with Dr. Herz, and we found out that no one was tracking how many crossover kids were getting services,” Duey said.
Culhane’s study showed that among systems-involved youth in L.A. County, crossover kids were more likely to receive services than child welfare or probation-involved youth, but this does not mean crossover youth are getting the right services when they need them most.
Where Systems Converge
When California legislators passed Assembly Bill 129 back in 2004, counties were given permission – but not a mandate – to create a “dual-jurisdiction protocol” under which a youth may receive services from both the dependency and the delinquency systems.
Today, only 15 of 58 counties in California, including Los Angeles County, have put such a protocol into practice. In L.A., this means agencies are tasked with pulling together the various players who are called upon to intervene on the youth’s behalf: DCFS, the Department of Mental Health, Probation, and Children’s Law Center among others.
The CARE Unit strives to augment these multidisciplinary teams. Its approach pairs CLC’s investigators with social work interns who are then assigned to crossover youth cases.
These caseworkers immediately establish relationships with the youth, the DCFS social worker and the probation officer. They gather information about the young person that the social worker and probation officer may not be monitoring, and they present it to judges on the youth’s behalf. CLC also pulls in its internal mental health advocacy team when a youth has complex mental health issues.
The CARE unit currently works with 25 crossover kids, four of whom are pregnant or have had a child and are now parents. CARE caseworkers meet with each youth in person on a weekly basis for the first month, and then in-person visits are tapered down to every other week with phone calls on the off-weeks.
“We decided to focus on this issue and these kids who are the highest risk kids with the highest level of needs,” Duey said. “No one is in charge of making sure they get the help that they need.”
The CARE unit’s initial evaluation cites the example of Jane*, a 15 year-old in juvenile hall for petty theft who had issues getting her prescription medication and enrolling in school. CARE staff stepped in and worked with Jane’s attorney to have her placement changed, her DCFS social worker to have her medication issue addressed, and with education and delinquency attorneys to resolve the conflicting court orders that were preventing her from enrolling in school.
As it should, the evaluation of the CARE unit’s efforts so far depicts a picture of its crossover clients that is strikingly similar to what Herz and later Culhane found in looking at the county’s larger crossover population. More than 50 percent of the youth are African-American and came under DCFS’ supervision due to neglect. Two-thirds have a mental health diagnosis (such as ADHD, depressive disorder, mood disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, or PTSD), and 80 percent of youth had a substance use problem at the time of referral.
The CARE unit’s main grant from The Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University will run out next winter. It will be evaluated for a new grant, but such funds are never guaranteed.
Not surprisingly, the problem of lack of coordination between agencies often affects crossover youth after they turn 18.
Children’s Law Center attorney Lindsay Elliott oversees a program that hires and trains former foster youth, called peer advocates, to act as liaisons to other foster youth who may not know about the ways extended foster care can help them become more independent.
CLC’s peer advocates attend dependency court hearings where they connect with foster youth, face to face, and they spend hours on the phone reaching out to teens who have had their cases recently closed, or may be on the verge of that happening.
Despite the peer advocates’ keen sense of what foster care youth go through, they don’t always pick up on the fact that a young person is dually involved right away.
“Sometimes it can take a while before we find out other stuff is going on,” said Miranda Sheffield, a peer advocate who is now 28 and working full-time for CLC while raising a daughter.
For example, Sheffield worked with a young woman who had been in juvenile hall for two years, was released on probation, and then picked up on a shoplifting charge. The girl, who was pregnant at the time and had outstanding community service hours, resisted going to court or interacting with probation out of fear that she would be arrested and end up having her baby in jail.
But with help from the peer advocates and an experienced investigator, she was able to avoid jail time and remain in her transitional housing program.
“What helped this youth was this constant reminder that, ‘I really want to help you.’ That we’re here,” Sheffield said.
Legislation Bridges Some Gaps
In 2012, legislators passed Assembly Bill 12, which extended foster care benefits from age 18 to 21.
The law was intended mostly for youth aging out of foster care, but included a wrinkle for juveniles on probation. Under AB 12, kids who turned 18 on probation could access foster care if probation deemed their living situation neglectful, abusive or unsafe.
Los Angeles County’s Probation Department oversees about 200 crossover youth who are benefiting from extended foster care, according to Jed Minoff, a probation director.
Minoff also sits on the Los Angeles County AB 12 Steering Committee, which includes representatives from probation, the Department of Children and Family Services, CLC, and advocates and service providers across the county.
“We’re all around the table trying to do what we do better, and I have to take a serious look at my own program and say, ‘Are we doing the best that we can do for this population?’” Minoff said.
When asked about how LA County compares to other counties in terms of probation’s involvement with extended foster care for crossover youth, Minoff became more optimistic.
“This is not based on data, but I think L.A. County is very often at the forefront,” he said. “Back when AB 12 was first being implemented in Sacramento, I was the only probation representative sitting at the table.”
The uneven nature of how county probation departments administer AB 12 benefits was explored in a recent Chronicle of Social Change story, with Contra Costa County and San Francisco County employing different strategies.
Although the results of a study meant to measure the impact of extended foster care in California have yet to be released, early data and anecdotal evidence from crossover kids in Los Angeles suggest that the efforts made by Children’s Law Center and the multidisciplinary teams may be making a difference.
In February, Children’s Law Center received a handwritten letter from a young woman named Monica* whose case was handled in part by Duey and her team:
“Because of the diligence that [my team] showed in working out resources that would benefit me, I felt cared for, which frequently encouraged me to care for myself,” Monica wrote.
Senate Bill 12, the legislation that is intended to make it easier for crossover youth to receive the benefits of extended foster care, is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Appropriations Committee as early as May 11.
*Names have been changed.
Christie Renick is Managing Editor for Fostering Media Connections. Celeste Fremon of Witness LA also contributed to this story.