According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation report on reducing juvenile incarceration, well over 60,000 young people are confined to correctional facilities or other residential programs for juvenile delinquency. Juvenile delinquency is broadly defined and encompasses a range of offenses from serious and violent to petty and minor. Conditions within such facilities and even within the foster care system can and are oftentimes fraught with violence and abuse. Environments established within cultures of violence breed a need for survival, or assimilation into the violence. The unique needs of young people in these systems go largely unaddressed. This is highly problematic when youth age out of foster care and the juvenile justice system and are expected to make it on their own with little to no helpful tools and skills.
In addition to inconsistencies and instability within placements, oftentimes youth will have to endure multiple placements. These disruptions tend to exacerbate challenges in psycho-social functioning, which can be predictive of success upon aging out as multiple placements have been shown to have adverse effects on such areas as:
- Recidivism, and
- Mental health.
Youth caught up in state agencies such as foster care and/or the many facets of the juvenile justice system are at a severe disadvantage when it comes to success in life upon aging out. Research has also shown that attachment is oftentimes disrupted in foster care due to foster families being discouraged from becoming too attached to the foster child or allowing the child to become too attached to them. Group homes also stifle relationship development with members of the community and give youth less opportunities to become adopted or develop adult mentors. Further, many congregate care facilities are staffed with young workers, and there are high staff turnover rates. This lack of consistency prevents youth from developing "lasting relationships with responsible adults" - a key factor associated with aging out successfully.
In light of this, a necessary direction for us to consider is Melinda Atkinson's Universal Safety Net. A good example of this notion of a universal safety net, as well as increased accountability on the part of the state in ensuring child welfare, can be seen through the Civic Justice Corps Model as proposed by H.R. 3114 (previously highlighted on our blog).
From a child welfare perspective, how are we indeed serving the best interests of children by locking them up in potentially dangerous and violent facilities, funneling them through multiple foster homes and other institutions, and not equipping them with the basic tools they need to succeed after they age out?
Shawyn is a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota's School of Social Work, and a graduate assistant with CASCW focusing on juvenile justice and child welfare. Shawyn welcomes any comments to this post.