Research indicates that youth involved with the Child Welfare System (CWS) are more likely than non-involved youth to become involved with the Juvenile Legal System (JLS). This population of youth is known as crossover or dually-involved youth. In Massachusetts, as of 2015, 72% of the youth committed to the Massachusetts JLS were currently or previously involved with the CWS (Citizens of Juvenile Justice, 2015). There is a dearth of research that examines the experiences and perspectives of dually-involved youth on their system involvement, particularly the loci of their transitions from the CWS to the JLS. Thus, this qualitative study investigates multiple stakeholders’ perspectives on the loci of crossover from the CWS to the JLS. Interviews were conducted with CWS social workers (N=9), child welfare and JLS state-appointed attorneys (N=10), and dually-involved youth (N=28) to examine youths’ transition experiences from the CWS to the JLS.
In depth, semi-structured interviews with social workers and attorneys were conducted between October and December 2019 (N=19), and interviews with dually-involved youth (N=28) were conducted between July and October 2021. Interviews conducted with all stakeholders were between 60-90 minutes and were conducted both in-person and virtually via Zoom or phone. Interview topics with adult professionals (social workers and attorneys) included: professionals’ roles in the lives of dually-involved youth, perspectives on the CWS and JLS and the loci of crossover, and the ways in which professionals facilitate or prevent crossover. Interviews topics with youth covered topics including youths’ experiences with the CWS and JLS, relationships with key stakeholders, supports received from CWS and JLS (or lack thereof), and experiences of crossover. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and analyzed using inductive thematic analysis to identify loci of crossover between the CWS and JLS.
Study findings indicate many commonalities in the experiences of crossover youth. Most youth became involved with the JLS through arrests occurring in schools or in CWS out of home placements, particularly within group home settings. According to youth and adult stakeholders, dually-involved youth are often committed to the JLS after getting into fights within group home settings, running away from a foster or group home, or after extended truancy from school or group home programming. Youth participants reported experiencing fear, anxiety, and confusion during their transition from the CWS to the JLS, and discussed feeling geographically dislocated from their neighborhoods and communities within both systems. Adult stakeholders discussed blurring professional boundaries to prevent youth crossovers from the CWS to the JLS, and emphasized the criminalization of youths’ trauma responses within out of home placements, and especially group homes.
Conclusions and Implications
These interviews with adult stakeholders and dually-involved youth (N=47) indicate recurring and consistent loci of crossover between the CWS and JLS, homing in on group homes as a hot zone for the phenomenon. Policy implications, particularly within Massachusetts, should include phasing out the use of group homes within the CWS, improving conditions of existing out-of-home placements, and deferring to family and community supports to prevent youth and family separation.