Child Welfare Involvement Linked to Increased Severity of Punishment for Youth, Study Finds

Among youth who come into contact with the juvenile justice system, researchers determined that those who were also involved with the child welfare system were as much as 11 times more likely to be placed in a group home over those with no child welfare involvement.

Utilizing Los Angeles County administrative data, a study titled “Juvenile justice sentencing: Do gender and child welfare involvement matter?” and published in the Children and Youth Services Review examined linkages between gender, child welfare involvement and harsh juvenile justice sentencing.

Released in May of 2016, the study found that the sex of a child and whether they were placed in foster care impacts the sentence they receive if they are caught up in the juvenile justice system. By maintaining types of crimes committed as a control in the study, researchers were able to determine that girls and children involved in the child welfare system were more likely to be sentenced to a juvenile justice group home placement rather than probation compared to boys and children not child welfare-involved.

As numerous other studies have demonstrated, the consequence of being placed in a juvenile facility, even if not a hall or camp with locked doors, can last a lifetime. This study is especially pertinent as it comes at a time when the state of California is trying to reduce its reliance on group homes through new reform measures taking effect this year.

“When youth are shuffled further into the system (i.e., sentenced to an out-of-home placement), they are more likely to recidivate, have lower educational and vocational attainment, and to experience a host of additional negative consequences,” the study reads.

Of the 1.2 million minors sent to juvenile court annually in Los Angeles, 7.8 percent are faced with “out-of-home” placements. Though the research indicates a variety of potential sources for the discrepancies found in the severity of punishments, the study’s methodology pointed to a clear trend: girls and children on welfare are more likely to be placed in out-of-home facilities than their counterparts, respectively; however, there was no significant data linking the two characteristics.

The study examined a cross-section of juveniles, aged 12 to 17, who were arrested for the first time in Los Angeles County in 2008 and had received a final settlement, or court order. According to the results, the majority of youths were sentenced to probation, the least severe form of punishment. The second largest sentencing was to a group home placement (out-of-home), considered the most severe, and the smallest group was dismissed.

Finally, these numbers were considered against the independent variables of gender and child-welfare status. The study determined that females held a 56 percent greater risk of being sentenced to a group home placement over time on probation compared to males, though they were less likely to be sentenced to corrections, and child welfare youth had an 88 percent greater risk of out-of-home placement than non-child-welfare youth.

Some possible explanations given by researchers for these significant findings included the ideology that females need protection and that by removing them from a malignant home life, a judge felt they were in fact helping the child. Further, child welfare-involved youth were more likely to be from poorer communities and, therefore, subjected to worse living conditions and potential for crime, and thus needed to be removed from the cycle, the researchers said.

However, Jonathan McNeil of the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) notes that only a small percentage, roughly one in ten youths under the age of 21 who end up in front of the DJJ, a sect for especially violent crimes, actually finds themselves assigned to out-of-home placements.

McNeil goes on to explain that “it’s almost always at the discretion of the judge and the child’s risk to the community.” More often than not, those committing the most serious crimes are sentenced to jail time, paroled and then offered rehabilitation services, according to McNeil.

Especially pertinent in light of recent California legislation, Assembly Bill 403, which took effect this past January and calls for an end to traditional group homes in favor of more rehabilitation-centered practices, the authors argue out-of-home placement can have detrimental effects on a youth’s future well-being and may actually fuel the cycle of crime and poverty even after the first arrest.

Jenna Dresner
is currently a Master of Public Administration student at the University of Southern California, where she also completed her undergraduate degree in Political Science. Formerly, Jenna served as a district intern for Congressmember Karen Bass and worked as an intake volunteer at the Alliance for Children’s Rights. 


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Journalism for Social Change
About Journalism for Social Change 61 Articles
Journalism for Social Change (J4SC), a program of Fostering Media Connections (FMC), is a graduate-level training program for students of journalism, public policy and social work, which teaches them how to use journalism as an implement of social change.