Abstract: Is There a Foster Care to Prison Pipeline? an Examination of Foster Care Experiences and Criminal Behavior Among Transition-Age Youth (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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5P Is There a Foster Care to Prison Pipeline? an Examination of Foster Care Experiences and Criminal Behavior Among Transition-Age Youth

Thursday, January 12, 2023
Phoenix C, 3rd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Michelle Ziko, MSW Graduate Student, California State University, Fullerton, Fullerton, CA
Gordon Capp, PhD, Assistant professor, California State University, Fullerton, Fullerton, CA
Background and Purpose: Transition-age foster youth are at-risk for poor life outcomes, including homelessness, untreated mental health needs, unemployment, and low educational attainment. Engagement in criminal behavior has become a growing concern, as research indicates nearly 30% of former foster youth are arrested by the age of 24. Research suggests youth of color, especially Black youth are at increased risk of being dually involved in the child welfare and criminal justice systems. Several factors are associated with criminal behavior; however, it remains unclear which factors most strongly influence the risk for criminal behavior. This study explored the relationship between foster care experiences, social support, caregiver connectedness, and educational engagement and involvement in criminal behavior.

Methods: A secondary analysis of the Crime During the Transition to Adulthood (CDTA) study was performed; the CDTA synthesized data from two sources: the Midwest Study of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth and official state arrest records from Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois. The Midwest Study was a multi-wave longitudinal study that followed a sample (n= 732) of foster youth between ages 16 and 17 until their 21st birthdays and attempted to capture how they functioned during their transition to adulthood. The CDTA study gathered official arrest records from the respective states and matched them to the Midwest study participants. A logistic regression analysis was performed to identify the influence of demographic variables (i.e., race, mental health diagnosis), educational engagement, caregiver connectedness, and out-of-home care experience variables on involvement in criminal behavior among transition-aged foster youth.

Results: Bivariate analyses examined the relationship between criminal behavior and foster care experiences among transition-age youth. Findings revealed Black participants were significantly more likely to have an arrest record; individuals with a mental health diagnosis were less likely to have an arrest record, as well as those enrolled in school and who reported high caregiver closeness. Participants who experienced placement instability or who were placed in a group home were more likely to have an arrest record. A logistic regression analysis revealed individuals with a mental health diagnosis were approximately 50% less likely to engage in criminal behavior and participants with five or more placements were 131% more likely to have an arrest record.

Conclusions and Implications: Findings suggest that placement instability and having a mental health diagnosis play a crucial role in determining engagement in criminal behavior. Additional findings through bivariate analyses showed that identifying as Black and being placed in a group home were associated with higher levels of criminal behavior, whereas identifying as White, being enrolled in school, and having higher levels of caregiver closeness may be protective factors for criminal behavior. Together, findings suggest there may be a foster care to prison pipeline. Prioritizing access to high quality mental health care and fostering stable placements especially for youth of color should be priorities for research and practice.