A number of studies have identified a link between involvement in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems (e.g, Jonson-Reid & Barth, 2000). Less research is available on the connection between child welfare and adult criminal justice system involvement. In addition, little is known about the relationship between involvement in other systems (e.g., mental health and drug and alcohol) and the justice systems for child-welfare involved youth. The limited understanding of the connections among these systems is particularly problematic given the negative consequences of criminal justice involvement on the trajectories of young people as they transition to adulthood. This study adds to the knowledge base in two ways. First, it examines the effects of specific child welfare experiences (e.g., out-of-home placement, length of placement, placement type, age at involvement) on justice system involvement. Second, it examines the relationships between other system involvement (e.g., mental health and drug and alcohol) and justice system involvement.
Data and Methods:
This study focuses on a cohort (N=42,735) of youth born between 1985 and 1994 ever involved in the child welfare system in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania (which includes Pittsburgh). The data include information on their child welfare, mental health, drug and alcohol, juvenile justice, and county jail experiences. Multilevel binary logistic regression was used to account for the fact that youth are nestled within families and that sibling groups may share unobserved characteristics. Four models were run. The first two predict the juvenile and criminal justice involvement of the full sample. The second two predict the justice system involvement of youth placed outside the home, which allows for an examination of the effects of specific out-of-home placement experiences.
In all models, youth who were African American, male, received mental health services, and received drug and alcohol services were more likely to have justice system involvement. For the full sample, youth placed outside the home and involved in child welfare after age 14 were also more likely to have justice system involvement. For the two models involving the placement-only sample, being in placement after the age of 14, number of placements, group home placement, residential treatment, and running away from placement predicted juvenile and/or criminal justice involvement. As expected, in both models examining jail involvement, juvenile justice involvement was a significant predictor.
These findings indicate that the risk of justice system involvement is heightened for child welfare-involved youth in out-of-home placement, particularly those in placement after the age of 14, as well for youth involved with other systems, such as mental health and drug and alcohol. They also suggest that specific child welfare experiences, such as a greater number of placements and placement in congregate care settings also increase this risk. This highlights the urgent need to address placement instability, develop alternatives to congregate care, and conduct additional research to better understand the pathways of youth across these multiple systems to inform the development of interventions to stop the drift of young people from the child welfare to the justice systems.