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Summary of “Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice: Two Sides of the Same Coin”

Judge NashJudge Michael Nash (pictured)
Presiding Judge, Juvenile Court in the Los Angeles Superior Court
Secretary, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges

Shay Bilchik
Director, The Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University
Former Administrator, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention

Summary: Paula Campbell* summarizes the author’s two-part series on the topic of crossover youth, which originally appeared in the Fall 2008 and Winter 2009 issues of NCJFCJ Today magazine.


Over the last 40 years, researchers have repeatedly demonstrated the connection between childhood maltreatment and delinquency. Many of our maltreated youth cross over into the juvenile justice and other systems of care, because child abuse and neglect increase the risk of arrest as a juvenile by 55% and the risk of committing a violent crime by 96%. Obviously, not every abused and neglected child will experience adverse outcomes or commit delinquent acts. Young people living in stable communities with safe schools, access to health care and supportive adult and peer relationships are more likely to thrive. Those lacking these and other protective factors risk crossing over from the child welfare system to the juvenile justice and other systems of care.

Because no one agency can provide the continuum of services needed to address the challenges crossover youth face, professionals have begun to reach across systems of care in an attempt to bolster protective factors for at-risk youth. Judges in both delinquency and dependency courts are in a unique position to foster collaboration among agencies so that the multi-dimensional needs of crossover youth may be met. Judges may take actions including: utilizing a range of strategies that actively engage stakeholders while holding them accountable; institutionalizing changes meant to address the multi-faceted needs of our most challenged young people within the courts; and ensuring that the data provided to and collected in the courtroom will further the development of best practices in serving crossover youth. Strong judicial and administrative leadership, coupled with a comprehensive knowledge of the characteristics and needs of this population, is essential in any jurisdiction’s movement toward effective interagency collaboration.

There are several pathways a youth may follow in becoming known to multiple systems of care. Understanding the developmental arc associated with these transitions is essential in crafting prevention and intervention strategies. Many young people transition directly from the child welfare system to the juvenile justice system. In Los Angeles, for example, these youth are likely to enter the juvenile justice system at a younger age and remain therein for longer periods of time. Some youth’s cases are closed with the child welfare agency for a period of time before they commit a delinquent act; other delinquent minors never have formal contact with the child welfare system, but self-report a history of maltreatment. Finally, some juvenile justice youth find that the home they left before committing a delinquent act is no longer a welcoming or appropriate place to return. These young people therefore make the transition from the juvenile justice system into the child welfare system.

New research continues to inform policymakers and practitioners on effective ways to alter the developmental arc that leads to crossover. For example, maltreatment that occurs only during childhood is not a significant predictor of adolescent delinquency in some studies, although it is significantly associated with adverse educational, mental and physical outcomes. Recent studies show that persistent maltreatment extending from childhood to adolescence, and maltreatment during adolescence only, are significantly correlated with increased risk of juvenile and young adult delinquency. The programmatic implications of this new research are that child welfare services to cover adolescent victims of maltreatment should be enhanced and must address the unique aspects of adolescent development. Expanding services in response to peer-reviewed research will lend dynamism and efficacy to the relatively recent phenomenon of working across systems of care to interrupt developmental pathways that lead to delinquency.

The majority of crossover youth in many studies have substance abuse or mental health issues. Crossover youth penetrate more deeply into systems, thereby increasing the costs of treatment and reducing the odds of successful social reintegration. Young people moving across systems may lose eligibility for educational, mental health or behavioral health services, and may experience disruptions in their relationships with attorneys, judges and advocates. The need for services may intensify due to crossover and in response to the trauma of continued abuse, or the nature of the delinquent act itself. Continuity of services, combined with an assessment of whether service provision must be amplified, is essential. Judicial leadership can facilitate cross-system collaboration to ensure that crossover youth and their families maintain access to services and continuity of representation.

Judges and court administrators play a critical role in ensuring the best possible outcomes for crossover youth. The prestige and respect garnered by the judiciary, coupled with the power to bring disparate stakeholders together, can enable judges to become the catalysts behind critical system reform. The research only confirms what many in the field already know: abused and neglected children are more likely to commit delinquent acts and have problems integrating into our communities both as adolescents and adults. Collaboration will translate to healthier, more capable youth in the short term and to safer, more stable communities in the long run. Taking on a leadership role in systems integration is not easy, but it is essential for judges dedicated to serving young people, their families and their communities.

Read the NCJFCJ Today articles:

Part 1

Part 2


*Paula Campbell is an information specialist in the Permanency Planning for Children Department at th National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. She is a member of the Judges' Page editorial team and contributes the web resources articles.

The US Department of Justice has supported CASA advocacy since 1985 through its Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
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