Who are dually-involved youth? And why do we need DIY courts?

Many children who are involved in the child welfare system and juvenile justice system go back and forth between dependency hearings and criminal proceedings. Along with this come visits with social workers, probation officers, and usually some kind of social services for the child and family. Because this group of children are involved in two legal systems, they are called “dually-involved youth.” (DIY) A significant number of DIY have been affected by some form of childhood trauma and they are often underserved as they move between the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. Due to the trauma affecting these young people and a lack of stability in their lives, they generally need more services than youths involved in only one legal system. In this post I will describe dually-involved youth and the problems they face as well as why we need dedicated DIY Courts. In the next post I will discuss how DIY Courts work and how using an integrated systems approach helps solve these problems.

We need Dually Involved Youth Courts to help the most vulnerable young people.

Because there is no national data on dually-involved youth I will use data from various jurisdictions that have studied this population to show how these children are affected by being dually-involved. The fact that there is no national data demonstrates how little we know about this group as a whole. As a result, we are forced to use limited information when designing policy to combat the negative effects of dual-involvement.

While the exact number of dually-involved youth varies across jurisdictions, research has shown that youth who have been maltreated are more likely to engage in delinquent behavior and become involved in the juvenile justice system as well as face negative outcomes in adulthood. (See Herz and Ryan (2008) and Jonson-Reid, Kohl, & Drake, (2012)) Negative outcomes include increased recidivism (Halemba & Siegel, 2011), decreased employment rates, and increased rates of criminal records and use of public welfare. (Culhane et al., 2011) Additionally, the type of placement, movement in placement, and lack of stability in education experiences all contribute to youth becoming dually-involved. (Download the 2018 CA Children’s Report Card here for a brief overview of challenges facing foster youth in general and youth in the juvenile justice system, see pgs 44-53). It is important to identify foster youth at risk of becoming dually-involved because once a foster child is exposed to the juvenile justice system they face worse outcomes than their peers.

Children involved in the foster care system are more likely to face harsher consequences than other children when they encounter the juvenile justice system. According to a 2011 study, youth in King County Washington involved in the Department of Child and Family Services were more likely to receive a correctional sentence instead of probation when they commit a crime. Additionally those youths who had experienced any legal activity involving the Department of Child Services or placement were twice as likely to recidivate as opposed to those with no administration history. Being involved in the foster care system puts a child at greater risk of entering the other system so it is important to identify those children at risk and either prevent them from crossing over or provide proper services when they do. The greatest risk is for those youth who are dually-involved.

Dually-involved youth face challenges that make them especially prone to be repeat offenders as adults. (Download a report by the Hilton Foundation here) DIY face poorer educational outcomes (Leone & Weinberg, 2012) and this can lead to fewer employment opportunities. These youth typically have fewer people in their lives to act as a support system or be a positive role model. This can lead to gang involvement or other delinquent behaviors. Dually-involved youth are more likely to be detained by law enforcement than their non-involved peers. And it should be no surprise that an increase in contact with law enforcement would likely result in more citations or arrests.  In fact a 2011 study by Huang, Ryan, and Herz found that 56% of DIY were charged with a second offense as opposed to 41% of the delinquency only group.

Children become dually involved when they are involved in one system and then become involved with the other.

Dually-involved youth can start in one system and later become involved in the other system, or they can be part of both systems simultaneously. To get a better understanding of circumstances that can lead to a young person becoming dually-involved, lets look at the stories of Matt* and Dulce*.

*These are fictional stories meant to relate common experiences for DIY.

Matt was raised by a single mother and had a history of behavioral problems. When he wasn’t skipping school, he was frequently sent to the principal’s office for disrupting class. Matt was charged with robbery after fighting one of his schoolmates and taking his backpack, along with all of its contents. Although

Matt was only 15 years old, he had already been initiated into a local street gang and had committed several other crimes before his arrest for robbery.

A few weeks before Matt was scheduled for release from a juvenile detention facility, his mother was arrested. Matt had no other family, so upon his release he was placed in a group home run by the state. In his second month living at the group home Matt had a heated disagreement with one of the group home workers. Although it was not a violent encounter, the worker called the police and Matt was arrested again. At Matt’s hearing the judge “threw the book at him” and Matt was on his way back to a juvenile detention facility. Matt continued to be in and out of juvenile facilities and eventually went to adult prison for burglary.

In this case, Matt was involved with the juvenile justice system first and then the child welfare system because he did not have a home to return to when he was released. He had no support system and when he acted out instead of being grounded he was arrested. The system failed him by treating him like a bad person, rather than a person who came from bad circumstances and made bad decisions. For young people with behavioral issues, living in a DFCS placement increases their likelihood of being arrested. According to a 2008 study by Herz and Ryan, in Los Angeles, 79% of the dually-involved youth arrests occurred at a Department of Child and Family Services placement, 40% of which were group homes. This scenario is not always the case; in fact it is the less common route to youth becoming dually-involved. Dulce’s story, on the other hand, has commonalities shared by many more dually-involved youth.

Dulce grew up in a poor, urban neighborhood. Her parents had trouble holding down stable jobs and both used drugs regularly. Dulce’s father was violent with an explosive temper, and he would often hit her and her mother. One day, when Dulce was 7 years old, a neighbor heard what sounded like a fight coming from the apartment where she lived. The neighbor called the police and officers came to investigate. Dulce’s father was arrested for domestic abuse. After a series of dependency hearings, Dulce was placed in a home with foster parents. Unfortunately, Dulce would never re-unify with her parents.

Although Dulce didn’t live with her biological parents, she still had occasional contact with them. Dulce suffered considerable emotional trauma, and as she got older, she developed a drug habit of her own. She even resorted to selling drugs in order to support her habit. When Dulce was 16, she was arrested for possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute. As part of her court ordered program assigned by the Juvenile Justice Court, Dulce had to attend 12 step program meetings and report to a probation officer. Before receiving this program she was already receiving mental health services from the dependency system to help her deal with her emotional trauma.

The services Dulce received were meant to help her, unfortunately they were located far apart and utilizing them took a significant amount of her time. She took three buses to get across the county, which took an hour and a half each way. Despite Dulce’s efforts to complete her court ordered program she faced another challenge: finishing high school. Spending so much time travelling to participate in her services had a negative impact on Dulce’s ability to keep up with her schoolwork and she did not graduate from high school.  

Although Dulce was receiving services to help her from both systems, because they were not administered effectively her education suffered. It is important to note that children involved in the foster care system are more likely to enter the juvenile justice system because this is the primary pathway to youth becoming dually involved.  (See Catuli, et al 2014) While these two examples involve serious crimes, it is important to prevent youth from becoming dually-involved in the first place and providing adequate services that are administered sensibly to those that do.

Why are the Outcomes so Poor for DIY?

The problem is twofold: first, children who are involved in both systems are not always identified, and second, those who are identified face structural barriers to their success. DIY generally face poorer outcomes than those children who are involved in only one court. Aside from the poor outcomes for the children, taxpayers suffer as well because we end up paying more when DIY bounce back and forth between systems. According to studies by Culhane, Halemba, and others, the estimated placement cost of dually involved youth is between $35,000 and $38,000. This doesn’t even take into account the increased cost of operating across systems.

Without effective communication between social services, probation, and the courts, money can be wasted on duplicative or contradictory assessments, planning, management, and services. This problem is exacerbated by the innate difference in how these agencies think and operate.  (Mack Center report by Hanna Slade) According to a 2014 study in Maryland dually involved youth face three major structural challenges: a lack of cross training for the departments of social services and juvenile justice, conflict among parties involved in crossover cases, and the departments of social services and juvenile justice have different innate philosophies on managing youth.

When dually-involved youth become entrenched in “the system” it can be very hard to change their pattern of behavior later on in life. By implementing policies that remove some of the structural barriers to these young peoples’ success, we give them a better chance of leading happy lives as contributing members of society. By using two separate courts for DIY it merely compounds the problem of the lack of coordination between the different agencies involved in decision making for DIY. In addition to establishing dedicated DIY courts, addressing the lack of cross training and forming a unified philosophy of managing dually involved youth would be the most beneficial change to break down the structural barriers to DIY’s success. I will discuss this more in my next post.