What Youth Need

Now that we have discussed how the basic needs of children include love, protection, a sense of nurturing and belonging, stability, and support, how do we ensure that youth within the foster care system are provided with these staples so they need not seek them from outside influences such as gangs? In this post, I will talk about how community-based services can help minimize and hopefully prevent gang involvement for youth within the foster care system, as well as ways in which we, as members of the community, may be able to provide these children with some sense of stability and consistency while they are in the chaos that is currently the foster care system.

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Integrated Dually-Involved Youth Courts are Beneficial for Everyone.

Now that we are familiar with the population of dually involved youth (DIY) and we see how using an integrated systems approach is beneficial for them, I will, in this post, explore why this model is not used more often and propose policy changes to implement it in more jurisdictions across the United States.

As a threshold issue, figuring out exactly which jurisdictions currently use an integrated systems approach for dually-involved youth can be tricky because many jurisdictions that use an integrated model have different variations of it, and I have not found any one resource that lists them all. The reason for the variations is that, although using integrated models is helpful for DIY, using a one-size fits all approach is unlikely to get the best results for any one place. Each jurisdiction should implement an integrated model in a way that is best for their particular community. The most comprehensive list of jurisdictions using an integrated model I have found uses the Crossover Youth Practice Model (CYPM). According to this data, 103 counties in 21 states have implemented or are in the process of implementing the CYPM. To put that in perspective, there are 3,142 counties or county equivalents in the United States, which means only about 3 percent of counties in the United States use this model. This number, of course, does not take into account jurisdictions using another version of the integrated systems model.

DIY courts are not the norm. Why are they not implemented more?

One possible reason DIY courts are not the norm could be due to a lack of publicity. In 2017, over 443,000 children in the United States spent time in foster care. It is estimated that about 25 percent of those children will be involved in the criminal justice system within two years of leaving care.  This figure does not include the children already involved in the juvenile justice system while they are in some sort of foster care. Using these numbers as a guide, if we estimate that every year somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 children and young adults will be involved in both the foster care and criminal justice systems, that is only .06 percent of the population of the U.S. Given that such a small percentage of people fit into this category, it is easy to see why more people are not aware of the difficulties of treating DIY.

Continue reading “Integrated Dually-Involved Youth Courts are Beneficial for Everyone.”

Gangs as Pseudo-Families: Giving Youth What They “Need”

From the outside looking in, gangs are comparable to family systems. In fact, as I will explain below, some gangs explicitly refer to themselves as “families” or “brotherhoods” and have mottos that encompass this familial idea. Robert Muller, a psychologist specializing in trauma, explained “that young adults join gangs because they both act as a surrogate family, as well as provide a sense of belonging…” Based on interviews conducted with current and former gang members, Muller stated:

Several gang members said that being part of a gang meant you were never alone in the world, which is similar to how many people describe being part of a close-knit family or group of friends. Gangs provide members a sense of belonging and protection they do not receive from other relationships or experiences in life.

(emphasis added)

Is this sense of belonging and protection what attracts children to gangs in the first place? The interviews Muller relied on revealed that “Bloods, Crips, and MS13 members all say they can identify with ‘Scarface.’ The feeling of being an outsider, dismissed and looked down on, is what gang members say drew them to their crews.” This explains why children in the foster care system may be more prone to joining gangs: they are often times, unfortunately, labelled as outsiders and looked at differently in comparison to children who are not involved in the child welfare system – a key reason they may feel alone and like they do not belong anywhere.

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Inequality for Youth: Why Do Foster Youth & Juvenile Offenders Receive Different Treatment?

I. Introduction: How Does Society Want To Treat Its Children?

            There is a shared belief in society that children should grow up in environments that are conducive to living healthy and productive lives. There are certain things that we believe that all children need and deserve. Those beliefs are even enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which sets out the rights that must be realized for children to develop their full potential: to be free from hunger and want, neglect and abuse. When these things might be lacking, society has in place mechanisms to try and remedy those deficiencies. Judge Leonard P. Edwards, in an article for the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, wrote that “[w]hen the family fails or is unable to rear its child within acceptable norms, society has an interest in intervening to achieve its own goals.” Children are our future and it is the shared goal of a society to raise them as best we can. However, there are times when circumstances compel the state to act in the best interest of the child.

            It is because of that fact that society has procedures and systems to protect and nurture children to the best of our ability. Some youth are removed from their unsafe homes and placed into foster care and some youth commit offenses and are then incarcerated. In my last post, I wrote about how children in the juvenile justice system face similar traumas as children in the foster care system might experience and are often even the very same children, yet the treatment they receive is vastly different. The question is why? What is different about the youth that would necessitate a difference in treatment? These youth are often the same and they have all experienced similar trauma. Yet, because of a few different circumstances surrounding the trauma these youth might be experiencing (being removed from their homes and placed in foster care vs. being removed from their homes and being incarcerated) they receive different support.

            Society also collectively believes that children under a certain age lack a “level of maturity, thought process, decision-making, and experience” compared to individuals above the age of majority. We therefore generally distinguish between children and adults with regard to criminal culpability “We punish [criminal acts] because we believe such harm is morally deserved by a particular individual for a particular act.”  However, is that what we want for our children? We recognize that children should be treated differently than adults and that rehabilitative measures would be better for them and society, yet the reality is considerably different. In Miller v. Alabama (2012), a 14-year-old committed murder and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The Supreme Court held that mandatory life imprisonment without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, writing “that children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing. Because juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform…they are less deserving of the most severe punishments.”

There is certainly a different societal view on the two populations, foster youth and juvenile justice youth, but they are all still children and youth that are deserving of all that we believe children deserve. Both systems can be traumatizing, but we tend to think one set of youth deserve what they are getting because they have committed some criminal/delinquent act. This is especially true for children and youth that commit particularly heinous or violent crimes because instinctively, we believe they should be punished.  This idea is given credence in Chief Justice Roberts’s Miller  dissent, where he wrote “society may determine that [protecting the innocent from violence] requires removing those guilty of the most heinous murders from its midst, both as protection for its other members and as a concrete expression of its standards of decency.” Yet the fact that these children and youth still are treated differently despite experiencing similar trauma is unjust. These children all deserve similar support when they experience difficult circumstances.

            In this post I will go through a brief overview of the criminal justice system and juvenile justice system as well as the theories underlying them. Then I will discuss issues with the juvenile justice system and its implementation and some of the realities of juvenile justice. I will also discuss some reforms to the issues addressed. Finally, I will discuss possible policy suggestions and further plans of action.

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Unpacking Adverse Childhood Experiences and the Impact on Foster Care Youth

In the past 20 years, doctors and public healthcare professionals have uncovered a clear link between poor adult health and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are “stressful or traumatic events, including abuse and neglect. They may also include household dysfunction such as witnessing domestic violence or growing up with family members who have substance abuse disorders.” ACEs not only lead to early morbidity, but they also have been found to promote participation in maladaptive, “high-risk,” behaviors. 

In the United States, adults who have experienced 6 or more ACEs during their childhood are 24.36 times more likely to attempt suicide than a person without ACEs. According to the 2017 article from the International Journal of Child Abuse and Neglect, not only are adults with high ACE scores likely to attempt suicide, but they are also 3.73 times more likely to use illegal drugs, 2.84 times more likely to engage in heavy alcohol use, and 2.73 times more likely to suffer from depression. 

Unfortunately, adults who suffer from drug addictions and alcohol abuse are not less likely to have children than their peers. Instead, they become families with adult caregivers who suffer from drug and alcohol addictions. At a certain point, when the substance abuse is unmanageable, law enforcement and Child Protective Services will intervene in the best interest of the child. If the parent is unable to cure their addiction, their child will join nearly 52,000 other youth who are in California’s Foster Care System.

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Who’s Watching the Watchers? – How Overrides Undercut Well-Measured Assessment Tools

In my last post we personified the real-life implications of discretion in the child welfare systems and how it can create inconsistency. We will now review current statutes, California’s most widely used policy manual, (the structured decision-making tool (SDM)), and culture of the agencies involved to uncover exactly why and how discretion can create inconsistencies that inflict further unnecessary trauma. The problem is not that child welfare agencies have discretion – every unique family deserves a response that best suits them – the problem is that this discretion is unfettered. There are clear steps and guidelines; however, a social worker can use something called an “override” (p.5) to change the course of a child welfare case based on their personal judgment. In this post I will illuminate unchecked discretion can have negative consequences for families.  

            It is important to have an overview of the juvenile dependency process before we go into the issues. First, a report of neglect or abuse is made to the child welfare service. These reports can be made by a law enforcement agent, officials at the child’s schools, family members, etc. Once a report is made, an official at the child welfare agency will determine whether and how quickly a response is warranted. Once a social worker responds, they have to make assessments about the risks of the child’s situation to determine what the best course of action will be (ie: open a case and work with the family, close the case, or remove the child). A social worker is to make those decisions, with or without the approval of a supervisor, using the SDM. These determinations will not be reviewed by a judge until the child welfare agency has a detention hearing, which can take days or weeks. 

I. Evaluation of Relevant Statutes

            California Welfare and Institution Code § 300 defines state law on the issue of removal. The subsection relevant to substance use related neglect is as follows:

(b)  (1)  The child has suffered, or there is a substantial risk that the child will suffer, serious physical harm or illness, as a result of the failure or inability of his or her parent or guardian to adequately supervise or protect the child, or the willful or negligent failure of the child’s parent or guardian to adequately supervise or protect the child from the conduct of the custodian with whom the child has been left, or by the willful or negligent failure of the parent or guardian to provide the child with adequate food, clothing, shelter, or medical treatment, or by the inability of the parent or guardian to provide regular care for the child due to the parent’s or guardian’s mental illness, developmental disability, or substance abuse. A child shall not be found to be a person described by this subdivision solely due to the lack of an emergency shelter for the family. 

If a report comes in and gets substantiated, a social worker can launch an investigation. If, during the course of investigation, it is determined that there is substantial risk of the child suffering then WIC § 300 is the controlling statute for removal. Although there are different potential causes for removal according to the statute, I would like to focus on substance use related neglect since this issue is at the heart of the overwhelming majority of child welfare cases.

            I would like to break down this statute to identify where the law grants discretion which creates opportunities for agents of the state to subjectively evaluate conditions. First, what constitutes “substantial risk?”  The statute lists substance abuse as a cause for willful or neglectful failure to care, but it does not state that that substance abuse automatically creates a substantial risk that the parent will willfully or negligently fail to care for the child.

            The determination of whether or not a child is at “substantial risk” is subjective and these crucial decisions are largely made by a case worker, with approval of a supervisor if there are issues that require overrides. Overrides are when a social worker uses their clinical experience to make judgment calls outside of the guidelines in the SDM. (pp. 8-9) This type of discretion is subject to implicit biases that social workers might carry, especially when it comes to substance use disorders.

            In many cases, substance use disorders can constitute grounds for removal; however, there is evidence that removal is typically not the best one for the child or parent involved. A child being yanked out of their home by strangers is extremely traumatic and is likely to cause long term suffering and issues; however, in some situations that might be in the best interest of both the parent and the child. Removal can have a positive impact on some parents by giving them a reason to begin to make serious life changes, but it can also drive a parent further down the rabbit hole of addiction by taking away the only thing that gave them hope to keep fighting to make those changes. Issues with removal are very complex and need to be tailored to individual situations, that is absolutely a fact. That fact is also the reason why these decisions should not be completely susceptible to the judgment of one social worker (and possibly a supervisor) without any safeguards or protection. Of course, discretion can also be used in ways that have a positive impact on families. However, this statute leaves a lot of room for subjectivity without any safeguards when making such a crucial decision about the trajectory of a child’s life.

            Next, California Welfare and Institutions Code § 309(a) governs the responsibilities of the child welfare agency to keep a child with their parent or at least, place the child with a family member. The law regarding placement is as follows:

309 (a) Upon delivery to the social worker of a child who has been taken into temporary custody under this article, the social worker shall immediately investigate the circumstances of the child and the facts surrounding the child’s being taken into custody and attempt to maintain the child with the child’s family through the provision of services. The social worker shall immediately release the child to the custody of the child’s parent, guardian, Indian custodian, or relative, regardless of the parent’s, guardian’s, Indian custodian’s, or relative’s immigration status, unless one or more of the following conditions exist:

(1) The child has no parent, guardian, Indian custodian, or relative willing to provide care for the child.

(2) Continued detention of the child is a matter of immediate and urgent necessity for the protection of the child and there are no reasonable means by which the child can be protected in his or her home or the home of a relative.

According to this statute, the child welfare agency “shall… attempt to maintain the child with the child’s family through the provision of services.” The agency is not mandated to maintain the child with the child’s family through the provision of services. However, the agency is also not allowed to fail to exert any effort to maintain the child. This leaves the standard regarding continued detention – which states that it should only be used if there is immediate and urgent necessity for the protection of the child and there are “no reasonable means” that could protect child in their home or the home of a relative – subject to human judgement once again. Do “reasonable means” look the same in every case?

            Lastly, California Welfare and Institutions Code § 361.4 governs the emergency placement of children who have been declared dependents of the state and is as follows:

 (3) Notwithstanding paragraph (2), a child may be placed on an emergency basis if the CLETS information obtained pursuant to paragraph (2) of subdivision (a) indicates that the person has been convicted of an offense not described in subclause (II) of clause (i) of subparagraph (B) of paragraph (2) of subdivision (g) of Section 1522 of the Health and Safety Code, pending a criminal records exemption decision based on live scan fingerprint results if all of the following conditions are met:

(A) The conviction does not involve an offense against a child.

(B) The deputy director or director of the county welfare department, or his or her designee, determines that the placement is in the best interests of the child.

(C) No party to the case objects to the placement.

WIC § 361. 4 outlines the standards for clearing potential emergency placements in regard to criminal records. The statute indicates that placements can be approved even if the person who is intending to take temporary custody of the child has a criminal record, so long as the other conditions are met. One of these conditions is that “the deputy director or director of the county welfare department, or his or her designee, determines that the placement is in the best interest of the child.” This means that determining whether or not a family member is the best option for placement of a child despite a criminal conviction is ultimately left up to the judgment of a human with their own subjective beliefs. I would be interested to know how the agency would determine what was in the best interest of the child.

            As you can see, all of the statutes discussed above have discretion built into them. Like mentioned above, discretion can be used for positive outcomes like keeping families together, placing children with relatives who might have criminal records, or promptly removing kids out of dangerous situations when the SDM might not call for those actions. However, in light of the entire process and the lack of guidance or oversight until after these decisions have been made, and the fact that these decisions can have traumatic consequences that cannot be undone it should not be so easy to use discretion to circumvent a well-established tool.

II. The Role of Risk Assessment

            Every county in California utilizes the structured decision-making tool to inform their decisions regarding child dependency. Levels of risk determine the decisions made by the child welfare agency involved about a particular case. The section regarding substance abuse of a caregiver states,

The caregiver is diagnosed with chemical dependency or abuse AND is currently using. Current use does not require that caregiver be under the influence at the moment of the call, but that the caregiver has used within the past two weeks and has not entered into a formal or informal program to achieve abstinence; OR The caregiver is using illegal drugs; OR The caregiver’s alcohol use suggests a probability that dependency or abuse exists, such as blackouts, secrecy, negative effects on job or relationships, identified drinking patterns, etc. (p.28)

I thought it was interesting that a person with a substance use disorder (not alcohol) can be classified as neglectful even if they haven’t used in two weeks, yet a person with an alcohol dependency is afforded a more thorough evaluation of how their drinking affects their ability to care for the child.

            The structured decision-making tool is intended to assist child welfare agents make risk assessments throughout the process described earlier. However, not every decision will be dictated by the SDM because each and every step recommends a certain action but also gives an easy “check this box and explain” override option that can be used retroactively.

            This seems like a major problem. Let’s look closer at the override options to uncover how “checking a box” to avert the recommended course of action can be problematic. The first step in the SDM is determining whether or not the report requires a response and this step has an “override” option. (p.5) This is when the agency has received a report of neglect and is determining the next course of action.

Continue reading “Who’s Watching the Watchers? – How Overrides Undercut Well-Measured Assessment Tools”

The Impact of Receiving Disparate Public Services: A Comparison of Youth in Foster Care and Youth in the Juvenile Justice System

I. Introduction

            This blog post will focus on the different public services, mostly education, available to children in the foster care system and children in the juvenile justice system. Children and youth are a segment of the population that most individuals would view as needing protection, support, and guidance. This is even more true for children and youth that are in either the foster care system or the juvenile justice system. Both systems aim not to punish, but to rehabilitate and/or help children. However, foster youth generally receive more public services compared to youth in the criminal justice system even though they both experience similar social circumstances and traumas. In providing these services, governments seek to protect and provide for the most vulnerable members of our society and improve the quality of life after traumas. Additionally, there are children that exist in both systems referred to as dually involved youth. Dually-involved youth…[are] youth who are concurrently known to both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems at some level. However, children who are involved in both systems will not be the focus of this post. My research will focus on the disparity between the services provided to foster youth and youth in the criminal justice system. In terms of public services available to deal with trauma, displacement, and instability, foster youths generally receive more services. This is a problem because even though justice-involved youth are experiencing similar trauma (housing insecurity, poverty, etc.) they are not getting the services that might be able to help them.

Continue reading “The Impact of Receiving Disparate Public Services: A Comparison of Youth in Foster Care and Youth in the Juvenile Justice System”