Child maltreatment creates severe problems for many victims, and these are often compounded by the limitations of our child welfare and juvenile justice systems. However, by fostering cooperation between the child welfare and juvenile justice professionals, we can improve outcomes. At the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) School of Social Work Gamble-Skogmo Chair in Child Welfare and Youth Policy, I’m studying the factors that contribute to the involvement of many maltreated children in the juvenile justice system, and developing interventions that can help.
The Importance of Context
My background is in developmental psychology; I received my Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. My program was very interdisciplinary and included not just developmental psychology, but also anthropology, linguistics and sociology. Psychological development is shaped in context. You can’t understand these complex processes through a single disciplinary lens, or by only studying it in the lab – you must get out and look at everyday life using a broad range of available social science tools.
There are many fascinating problems to study in developmental psychology, but I wanted to learn about issues that would be useful to educators and social service providers – particularly those working with vulnerable children and families. Social work has been an excellent fit for me because it’s interdisciplinary and focused on community engagement with a strong social justice component. As a developmental psychologist, I took a particular interest in child welfare.
The Link Between the Child Welfare and the Juvenile Justice System
Maltreatment presents a host of developmental risks for children. These include emotional and behavioral disorders, physical and health issues, and psychosocial challenges in understanding healthy relationships. Entering the child welfare system can create additional risks for vulnerable children. When children are taken from their home – even one that presents major risks to their health and safety – they are not only uprooted from the negative relationships they have in their family, but the good ones as well. If they don’t have a nearby relative they can live with, they may be uprooted from their community, school and friends and placed with a family they don’t know. This situation presents its own developmental risks and challenges for the child.
Research shows that children who are abused or neglected are 47% more likely to become involved in delinquency than comparable peers who have not been maltreated. This increases risks already associated with child maltreatment in many ways. Children who enter the juvenile justice system are likely to be placed in a restrictive setting that offers fewer developmental opportunities for positive growth. In addition, exposure and interactions with delinquent peers compounds the developmental risks for these already vulnerable children.
Other factors that contribute to maltreated children crossing over from the child welfare system to the juvenile justice system include an increased incidence of emotional and behavioral disorders, difficulty reading and being suspended from school. This tie to school suspensions is particularly disturbing, as data show that African American children are far more likely to be harshly disciplined or suspended than their white counterparts for the same behaviors.
Breaking the Cycle
Along with my colleagues at CEHD’s School of Social Work and our community partners, we want to break this cycle and prevent maltreated children in the child welfare system from “crossing over” into the juvenile justice system. We’ve been studying five counties in Minnesota that have implemented the Crossover Youth Practice Model (CYPM) created at Georgetown University’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform. This model aims to interrupt the negative developmental trajectory of children in the child welfare system by facilitating better cooperation and sharing of information between the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. This model allows them to work together to divert maltreated children before they become deeply involved in the juvenile justice system, and engage families in supporting children.
We’ve analyzed the Crossover Youth Practice Model to study its effectiveness and look for ways it could be improved. By studying the experiences of children who participated in the program compared to their peers who did not, we can see that the program is making a difference. We found that children involved in the CYPM were significantly less likely to go on and commit further crimes than their counterparts who received services as usual.
Changing Our Approach to Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice
Rather than waiting until they’ve already entered the juvenile justice system, wouldn’t it be preferable to intervene with maltreated children before they become involved in delinquency? That’s what drives our research and outreach. By better understanding the factors that contribute to a child crossing over from the child welfare to the juvenile justice system, we can create programs and systems to prevent the involvement of vulnerable, maltreated children in delinquency. If we are to improve outcomes, we need to change our approach to handling these children in two important ways:
- Better communication between systems and agencies. In many jurisdictions, our social service and justice systems “silo” professionals. When child welfare workers are not able to talk with juvenile justice workers, for instance, a situation can develop where a child or a family is being served by people who have different – sometimes conflicting – requirements of them. We want to avoid a situation where the child welfare and juvenile justice workers are unable to share information and resources with one another to provide the strongest and best coordinated service plan for struggling children and families
- Create a more equal balance of power between social workers and legal professionals. The ability of social workers to support and strengthen vulnerable families and children may be undermined when families feel attacked, for example, during court hearings, and react by becoming angry and defensive. Other countries, like Scotland and Japan have deliberately minimized the adversarial aspects of legal processes associated with child protection to allow social workers to better engage with families over the long term. As our Japanese colleagues explained to me, in child welfare it is important to “look with long eyes” at vulnerable families. Many are likely to need support in the future, and the safety and wellbeing of their children may depend on the supportive relationships they have formed with child welfare professionals.
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