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Foster Youth Fall Through the Cracks Between the Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice Systems

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Document date: August 13, 2009
Released online: August 13, 2009

Abstract

Timothy Ross identifies the obstacles frustrating service coordination and details ways to strengthen the fragile web connecting the many systems involved in protecting foster youth. Child welfare agencies often have responsibility for a child when a family crisis arises, but not the authority or capacity to resolve it without cooperation from other government divisions. When complex systems and bureaucracies have overlapping jurisdiction, fine-tuned coordination is the exception and not the rule.


Contact: Simona Combi, (202) 261-5709, scombi@urban.org

FOSTER YOUTH FALL THROUGH THE CRACKS BETWEEN THE CHILD WELFARE AND JUVENILE JUSTICE SYSTEMS

WASHINGTON, D.C., Aug. 5, 2009 — Ensuring foster children's safety, education, and health requires collaboration among the child welfare, juvenile justice, and law enforcement systems. Yet, fragmented responsibilities, interagency competition, and institutional culture clashes prevent cooperation and can harm foster children and their families, Timothy Ross contends in Child Welfare: The Challenges of Collaboration.

In his new Urban Institute Press book, Ross identifies the obstacles frustrating service coordination and details ways to strengthen the fragile web connecting the many systems involved in protecting foster youth. Child welfare agencies, for instance, often have responsibility for a child when a family crisis arises, but not the authority or capacity to resolve it without cooperation from other government divisions.

When complex systems and bureaucracies have overlapping jurisdiction, says Ross, a senior program area director at Child Trends and an affiliated scholar at the Vera Institute of Justice, fine-tuned coordination is the exception and not the rule. Among the types of problems he identifies:

  • A youth's entry point into the system (a mental health program, school, police, or juvenile justice agency), not the youth's underlying problems, usually determines how government responds. Once on a particular path, it is hard to change course, which may exacerbate the young person's problems.
  • Many times agencies cannot access information held by their counterparts — even when investigating the same case – because of bureaucratic, legal, budgetary, privacy, and technological reasons.
  • Agencies' confusion over roles and responsibility may result in no one working with a foster youth on the issues that prompted the initial investigation. When responsibility is diffuse, kids fall through the cracks.
  • Mismatches between what kids need and what agencies provide lead to kids bouncing between home and care facilities and within the child welfare system.

Child Welfare: The Challenges of Collaboration zooms in on four solutions to these problems:

  • Identify one person or unit to be fully responsible for a child's case management.
  • Provide the responsible person with appropriate resources, such as political support, access to specialized staff, and financing.
  • Develop new standard operating procedures that apply across agency boundaries. Many human services agencies have high staff turnover rates and painstakingly negotiated arrangements may be lost in the shuffle.
  • Find strong managers who can tackle these complex problems. They must have political skills to bargain with staff from other agencies, over whom they have little or no formal authority.

Child Welfare: The Challenges of Collaboration incorporates research by the Vera Institute of Justice in New York City. The book includes evaluations of programs that have helped adolescents in foster care by strengthening the collaboration between juvenile justice, criminal justice, youth serving programs, and child welfare agencies.

"This brilliant research throws a spotlight on the young people who are the collateral damage of our social ills and on the many difficulties that child and protective service agencies face in responding coherently to their needs," said John Mollenkopf, the director of the Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

Child Welfare: The Challenges of Collaboration, by Timothy Ross, is available from the Urban Institute Press (ISBN 978-0-87766-756-8, paper, 268 pages, $29.50).

The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization that examines the social, economic, and governance challenges facing the nation.



Topics/Tags: | Children and Youth | Crime/Justice


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