We know that, statistically speaking, kids who spend time in Los Angeles County’s foster care system — or any foster care system, for that matter — have worse outcomes when they reach adulthood than youth who’ve never wound up in the child dependency system at all.
Over the past few years, new California state laws that are sensitive to this problem, along with community-based programs and dedicated child advocates, have helped to ameliorate those bad stats to some degree.
Yet there is another youth population with challenges and outcomes that are far worse than the statistically stacked deck our foster care children often face. And that group is Los Angeles County’s dual-status youth, also known as “crossover youth.”
These are the young people who have the bad luck to fall under the care of two county systems: the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), and the juvenile justice system, run by the county’s Probation Department.
On Tuesday, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors approved a motion that aspires to change the double-whammy of bureaucratic harm that so many crossover young people must battle.
“It is essential that Los Angeles have a countywide plan to improve services and supports – and in many cases, resources – for this population,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who authored the motion, which was co-sponsored by Supervisor Hilda Solis. “Access to high quality health, mental health, substance abuse, housing and education supports can mean the difference in a youth turning their life around rather than becoming more deeply entrenched in poverty or the criminal justice system. It is also cost effective to invest more on the front end to both divert foster youth away from the justice system and wrap additional services around dual status youth.”
The motion aims to create a multi-disciplinary countywide system to keep foster youth out of the juvenile justice system, while also ensuring that those who end up still being affected by both DCFS and the Probation Department, are given the services and caring help they need to heal and thrive.
At least that’s the goal.
By definition, youth in foster care are victims of serious trauma, Ridley-Thomas said via email when we asked him why he believed the motion was important.
“And getting caught up in the justice system only traumatizes them further,” he wrote. “Half of dual status youth in the county are struggling in school or not attending regularly. Too many end up languishing in juvenile hall due to insufficient community-based placements. We can and must do better.”
The reports on the challenges faced by dual status youth are many and sobering.
A 2011 report funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation documented dual status youths’ dismal outcomes in education, employment, health, mental health and in further criminal justice-system involvement as adults.
Half of the crossover youth studied fell into extreme poverty in their young adult years, as compared to only 25 percent of those kids in juvenile probation alone, or 33 percent of L.A. youth who were in foster care alone. Crossover youth were also more likely to think about suicide or attempt it, than kids in just one of the county’s systems.
One of the biggest problems that dual-status kids face, according to youth advocates, is that by being overseen by two big agencies, often no one person seems to have the best interests of these youth at heart enough to make sure they don’t fall into the cracks between the two agencies.
Thus it should not be a surprise that, according to data gathered by the University of Southern California’s Children’s Data Network, in partnership with California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA), four out of five probation youth who are locked up in L.A. County’s camps and juvenile halls, have previously touched the child welfare system.
The dual-status youth population is also rife with racial and gender inequities. For instance, nearly one half of the county’s crossover cases are African American. And although young women are only 20 percent of the county’s probation population, they represent 40 percent of the crossover cases.
“Tracking these disparities will allow the county to identify trends and inform the countywide plan. Identifying potential root causes of these disparities – whether connected to implicit bias or law enforcement deployment patterns – will best allow the county to develop trainings, protocols and policies needed to reduce these disparities,” Ridley-Thomas said.
Dropping the Ball
Matters have not been helped in recent years, according to the motion, by the fact that the county has unaccountably stopped certain relevant programs, like its DCFS-led Delinquency Prevention Pilot, “intended to identify high-risk factors that if not addressed could lead to foster youth winding up in the justice system.”
The county also appears to have dropped its support for the highly regarded annual reports and evaluations on crossover youth that had been conducted by Dr. Denise Herz of Cal State-Los Angeles.
At the same time, access to needed support services for dual status youth — or kids who seem headed toward dual status — remains limited, according to the motion.
It doesn’t help that LA is still facing a daunting crisis when it comes to finding enough good foster care placements. As a consequence, kids — many of them girls — who act out because of the trauma and loss that sent them into foster care in the first place — reportedly sometimes get pushed into LA’s juvenile halls because no one knows where else to put them.
As it happens, several of the girls in the face-obscuring photo above at the top of this story were dual status girls that I met in L.A.’s Central Juvenile Hall a few years ago.
“Why are you here?” I asked one of the girls.
“Because they didn’t want me at the group home any more,” she said. “And they didn’t know where else to put me.”
Two more girls, their expressions wary and resigned, gave me similar answers.
With all this in mind, the new motion instructs the director of the Office of Child Protection (OCP) — namely Michael Nash, the former supervising judge of L.A.’s Juvenile Court — to work with a list of county agencies on a countywide plan to help crossover youth.
“The Office of Child Protection,” states the motion, “created in 2015 and focused on improving communication, coordination and accountability across county child-serving agencies, is well-positioned to play this role.”
The plan is due in six months.
Among the things that Ridley-Thomas and Solis want addressed in the plan:
- Determine the feasibility of incorporating delinquency prevention into DCFS’s mission and trainings
- Create a strategy to align with any applicable existing plans in the new countywide youth diversion project.
- Develop a coordinated care system to address the needs of youth identified as high-risk for crossing over into the delinquency system.
- Find strategies to address and minimize the most common ways youth cross over — including consideration of restorative justice alternatives.
- Find strategies to reduce disproportionalities among crossover youth.
- Enhance coordination between the two lead agencies: DCFS and the Probation Department.
- Create method to enhance referrals and access to appropriate and high-quality health, mental health, substance abuse, housing, education, and employment services for youth and their families.
- Ensure stable and appropriate placements, while minimizing placements in the juvenile halls and probation camps. (“This is one of the biggest orders,” states the motion.)
- Strengthen data tracking and evaluation, which is essential.
- Determine what policy changes, support and funding is needed to achieve a new countywide plan and above objectives.
Jeremy Loudenback contributed to this article.
Celeste Fremon is founder and editor of WitnessLA. A version of this story originally appeared there.