Crossover kids: The intersection of child welfare and juvenile justice

Issue November/December 2016 By Cristina F. Freitas and Debbie F. Freitas

Youth who have simultaneous involvement with the child welfare system and the juvenile justice system comprise an increasing percentage of juvenile court dockets across the state and nationally. These crossover kids, so labeled due to their "crossover" from involvement with the Department of Children and Families (DCF) to the Department of Youth Services (DYS), or vice versa, pose unique challenges to the current juvenile court model. At the very intersection of the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, these youth face increased systemic service barriers, school exclusion, and prolonged detention or out-of-home placement during their childhood and greater rates of academic failure, unemployment, homelessness, and recidivism into adulthood. Improved identification, cross-system collaboration, and meaningful interventions may allow these youth to extricate themselves from the juvenile justice and child welfare systems, reaping benefits for these youth long into the future as they transition to successful adults.

The number of crossover kids in Massachusetts is staggering. A study of youth committed to DYS between 2000 and 2012 found that 72 percent had involvement with DCF either prior to or during their involvement with DYS, accounting for nearly 7,500 kids statewide. These crossover youth become involved in the juvenile justice system at an earlier age and are more frequently arrested or charged than their peers. Likewise, national studies have shown that crossover youth struggle with more persistent family or service needs, longer lengths of out-of-home placements, and more placements overall than kids with child welfare cases alone. Further, minority youth make up a disproportionate percentage of crossover kids, further exacerbating the racial and ethnic disparities which already plague the juvenile justice and child welfare systems.

Crossover youth who cannot extricate themselves swiftly from the juvenile justice and child welfare systems face bleak outcomes: lower graduation rates, higher unemployment rates, higher homelessness rates, increased recidivism, and poorer health overall. Earlier identification of crossover kids and intersystem collaboration during the youth's involvement in the juvenile court has the potential to reduce the likelihood of pre-trial detention, limit the duration of secure detention, prevent instances or limit the duration of school exclusion, identify appropriate placements, and implement timely services which may avoid further juvenile justice system involvement.

Important initiatives are currently being implemented statewide to better understand and assist this vulnerable population. The Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) is a national initiative advancing systems-reform in order to reduce the harmful and unnecessary detention of juveniles. Their reform work, particularly in Massachusetts, emphasizes data collection and analysis in order to guide fairer decision making, identifying areas of concern, and diagnosing systemic patterns across courts and counties.

County-wide initiatives are also trying to address the unique complexities of working with crossover youth. Hampden County, for example, has attempted to address the current lack of accurate identification of crossover youth by implementing a data sharing memorandum of understanding and implementing a multi-disciplinary team meeting opportunity. These components seek to bring together the youth, family, probation officer, DCF social worker, defense attorney, community collaterals, and the prosecutor to make individualized suggestions in order to prevent the youth from moving deeper into the juvenile justice system. In August 2013, the Springfield session of the Hampden Juvenile Court also began a dedicated docket to crossover cases with judges trained on the specific needs of dually involved youth. While Hampden County is at the forefront of this type of crossover youth program, dual status youth initiatives are in varying stages of design and implementation in Essex, Suffolk, and Middlesex Counties.

Improving outcomes for crossover kids in our own practices is also critical. Client-directed representation is not only the hallmark of the Massachusetts juvenile and child welfare defense practice, it empowers the young person to be an active decision maker in his/her own life. In maintaining fidelity to this model, it is our responsibility to identify the crossover kids in our practice early on, educate them about the perils of being dually involved, and involve them in every stage of their case. We must hold each systemic partner, not just the child, accountable for a plan to extricate the youth from the juvenile justice system and successfully transition the youth back to his/her school and larger community. This includes frequent collaboration between CAFL and delinquency attorneys (with your client's consent) to limit instances of or duration of school exclusion, identification of community resources not yet utilized, advocacy for the right placement for the child at all times (from DYS to DCF), and creation of probation terms that are specific to the individual youth. This also entails being vigilant that this unique population does not become exposed to unconstitutional bootstrapping of civil status offenses to delinquency cases, which can lead to prolonged pre-trial detention for normative adolescent behaviors. Finally, we must continue to advocate in court and in our communities for more data, more services, more accountability from adults, and more opportunities for this unique population to disentangle themselves from crossover status.

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