Prison or Prevention: Maltreated Children and the Juvenile Justice System

Over the last 20 years, numerous studies have confirmed that children who experience maltreatment are more likely to be referred/arrested for delinquent offenses. Maltreated children have also been found to more likely become involved in the adult criminal justice system. In fact, a 2004 National Institute of Justice study found maltreated children to be 11 times more likely than a matched control group to be arrested, and 2.7 times more likely to be arrested as an adult.
In 2011, the California Senate Office of Research released findings about the foster care experiences of California prison inmates who were scheduled to be paroled within eight months of June 2008. This research found that of the 2,549 polled inmates, 316 men and 40 women (14%) had been in foster care sometime during their youth and half of this percentage had been placed in group homes.
As a result of these studies, several child protective service (CPS) agencies, including the Department of Children and Family Services in Los Angeles County (LA), have joined forces with their counterparts in the juvenile justice system to collaboratively service youth who were concurrently involved in both of these systems. These youth are commonly referred to as “crossover” youth. While LA was observing some initial positive outcomes from these teaming efforts, two leaders [1] involved in the effort wondered if it was possible through research to identify which of the maltreated children were the most likely to become delinquent. If this was possible, then perhaps new practices could be adopted to prevent these youth from becoming delinquent, thereby increasing the likelihood that these most at-risk youth would become productive adults versus adult criminals.

In 2010, CRC undertook a study using LA child protective service administrative and assessment data and the LA probation department’s arrest and adjudication records. These CPS and probation data were matched for a sample of children, ages 7–15, with a maltreatment investigation that occurred between April and December 2005 and resulted in a newly opening ongoing case. Subsequent arrests and adjudications were observed for a standardized three-year follow-up period for each child.
Analysis of available data resulted in a delinquency screening assessment composed of 10 factors. The research produced weights for each of these items and created the classification cut points. The study found that the delinquency screening index effectively classified sampled children by their likelihood of subsequent delinquency. During the three-year follow-up period, 1.6% of the low risk, 8.4% of the moderate risk, and 23.5% of the high risk children were arrested. Similarly, .8% of the low, 4.8% of the moderate, and 17.5% of the high risk children were adjudicated. The negative outcome rate observed more than doubled with each increase in risk level. (See Table 1 below.)

As a result of this study, LA has decided to pilot the use of the screening assessment in four of its CPS offices to identify the CPS children who are the most likely to become delinquent sometime in the future. Once these children are identified, a team will work with the children and their families to identify and implement strategies that existing evidence indicates will be the most effective in preventing the transition of these children from child abuse victims to delinquent offenders. This “cutting edge” work could prove to be one of the directions that could be replicated across this nation to significantly reduce the number of maltreated children who eventually find themselves in prison at some point in their adult lives.

[1] Maryam Fatemi and Dick SantaCruz solicited assistance from CRC to conduct an actuarial study to determine if it would be possible to triage the maltreated youth by likelihood of becoming delinquent. Similarly, with the assistance of the Casey Family Program, they, in collaboration with CRC, are guiding the implementation of a pilot project to evaluate the effectiveness of the screening assessment tool and the subsequent focusing of more targeted and intensive interventions to the highest risk youth.

The post above is reprinted with permission from the NCCD Blog, a blog from the National Council on Crime & Delinquency.

Janice Ereth, Ph.D., is a Special Advisor at the National Council on Crime & Delinquency. For the last 40 years, she has worked in administrative, research, and policy-making capacities in the child welfare, juvenile justice, and education fields. She holds a Ph.D. in urban education with a minor in criminal justice.
Prior to joining NCCD in 1996, she served as the juvenile court coordinator for the State of Wisconsin First Judicial District (Milwaukee). She worked with the judiciary, county board, public schools, and private providers to launch a comprehensive education program in the detention center; created 200 new day treatment slots for adjudicated delinquents; developed procedures to enable youth placed in residential treatment centers to be transitioned home by a reintegration team planning process; and designed a case management plan to expedite the adoption of abused children.
*Photo at top by D. Sharon Pruitt

Updated: February 08 2018