Caught in the Middle: The Plight of Crossover Youth
Despite a variety of systemic hurdles, community leaders strive to provide the services necessary to address the needs of this unique population.
There have been countless programs started, initiatives launched, conferences held, and resources poured into improving outcomes for youth in the child welfare system. The same can be said for youth in the juvenile justice system.
But hidden in all these efforts are a third group of youth—those who have both experienced maltreatment and engaged in delinquent behavior. These “crossover youth” face serious threats to their future success, yet their needs are often not addressed because of a long-entrenched lack of communication and coordination between the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
Recognition is increasing that crossover youth exist and require a collaborative approach that depends on dismantling intersystem silos. The work to better serve crossover youth, who are disproportionately children of color, has become even more urgent as the nation confronts its history of institutionalized racism.
“Crossover youth are everywhere, and no community can ignore them and their needs,” says Macon Stewart, MSW, deputy director of multisystem operations at Georgetown University’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform. “Kids aren’t siloed, and their needs are multifaceted.”
Who Are Crossover Youth?
There are multiple pathways youth can take to move between the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, says Karen Kolivoski, PhD, MSW, an assistant professor at the Howard University School of Social Work. Examples of scenarios that could result in dual-system involvement include the following:
• A youth with an open child welfare case faces a delinquency charge.
• Juvenile justice professionals who come in contact with a youth who has been arrested learn about issues requiring the attention of child welfare.
• A juvenile justice system case is about to be closed, and professionals discover that a youth has no safe home to return to.
The majority of crossover youth have contact with the child welfare system first before moving to the juvenile justice system, Kolivoski says. Ryan and Testa (2005) found that children in Cook County, Illinois (which includes Chicago), who were victims of maltreatment had delinquency rates that were on average 47% higher than children without child welfare involvement.
Because of the different terms applied to crossover youth, the different ways in which they interact with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, and the lack of data sharing between systems, it is difficult to estimate how many there are in the United States. Many existing estimates are based on information from specific jurisdictions. For example, one study (Herz & Dierkhising, 2019) examined youth in Cook County, Illinois; Cuyahoga County, Ohio (which includes Cleveland); and New York City who received their first delinquency court petition between 2010 and 2014. The proportion of these youth with dual-system involvement ranged from 44.8% in Cook County to 68.5% in Cuyahoga County to 70.3% in New York City.
What is known is that crossover youth are at higher risk for negative outcomes than their peers who have not crossed over. For example, youth in King County, Washington (which includes Seattle), with child welfare involvement were at higher risk of spending more time in detention and reoffending once they entered the juvenile justice system (Halemba & Siegel, 2011).
A study of risk and protective factors found that crossover youth had significantly higher risk factors (such as substance use and poor relations with parents) and lower protective factors (such as positive family support and positive interactions with school) than noncrossover youth, which, in turn, increased crossover youth’s risk for recidivism (Lee & Villagrana, 2015).
Crossover youth are likely to experience trauma that puts them at higher risk of poor outcomes later in life, says Tonya Hansel, PhD, LMSW, director of the DSW program at the Tulane University School of Social Work. Multiple adverse childhood experiences such as abuse, neglect, witnessing violence, and living in unstable households can put youth on a path toward risk-taking behavior, poor health outcomes, behavioral health issues, and fewer job opportunities. “These experiences have a cumulative effect and tend to be difficult to ‘just get over,’” Hansel says.
The trauma crossover youth experience is frequently part of a generational pattern. Crossover youth often have parents or other relatives who have been involved with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, says Deedee Cummings, MEd, LPCC, JD, a therapist, attorney, and children’s book author based in Louisville, Kentucky. “Generational trauma, in my opinion, is the leading reason for the occurrence and the increase in the existence of crossover youth,” she says.
Crossover youth are disproportionately African American, reflecting racial injustices present in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. A study of youth in Los Angeles, for example, found that African American youth accounted for 10% of the general population but 37% of child welfare referrals, 28% of referrals to probation, and 63% of crossover youth (Herz & Ryan, 2005, as cited in Kolivoski et al., 2017).
There are structural and cultural reasons why African Americans are overrepresented among crossover youth, Kolivoski says. Black youth living in highly segregated and poor neighborhoods are more visible to social service and law enforcement agencies, making contact with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems more likely. The trend also points to a broader bias in which African Americans are perceived as more dangerous and in need of social control, Kolivoski says.
Building Bridges, Cultivating Cooperation
The roots of the dysfunction between the child welfare and juvenile justice systems lie in the systems’ historical evolution. Both systems were developed with the goal of promoting child well-being—either through protecting children from home situations deemed unsafe or helping delinquent children become productive citizens—but their paths eventually diverged. Each system developed its own mission, professional structure, and jargon—one focused on protecting youth and the other focused on punishing youth.
Questions around data can stymie collaboration between child welfare and juvenile justice because systems often don’t know how much and what types of information they can share with one another without breaching privacy laws, Kolivoski says. Politics and interpersonal dynamics between child welfare and juvenile justice professionals also can shape the relationship between systems.
Cummings says high caseloads and turnover coupled with a lack of resources make it difficult for professionals in both systems to make the effort to collaborate. “People are very quick to label workers as uncaring and unprofessional, but the truth is that they just cannot do it all,” says Cummings, a former child welfare worker. “When governments build a system that can do nothing but put out fires, everyone else is going to suffer from a lack of attention and committed, thoughtful care.”
But people who manage the child welfare and juvenile justice systems are increasingly recognizing crossover youth as a unique population with unique needs. In response, a growing number of agencies are making efforts to boost interagency collaboration. One of the most well-known initiatives is the Crossover Youth Practice Model developed by the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform to improve outcomes for crossover youth. The model aims to reduce the number of crossover youth, the number of youth placed in out-of-home care, the use of congregate care, and the disproportionate representation of youth of color in the crossover population (Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, 2015). The model, which is implemented in three phases, focuses on objectives such as increasing interagency cooperation, increasing interagency information sharing, increasing family engagement and voice in decision making, and reducing recidivism.
As of September 2020, the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform has worked with 120 counties in 23 states to implement the model. In addition to working with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, Stewart says the center encourages jurisdictions to include other sectors that offer vital services to crossover youth and their families, such as education and behavioral health, in the process.
In Marion County, Florida, the model is a good fit because it supports a larger effort in the state to focus on interagency work, reduce duplication of services, and serve families in a more holistic way, says Joelle Aboytes, Esq., Circuit 5 community development administrator with the Florida Department of Children and Families. “I absolutely believe the model has been a positive because there’s a whole lot more coordination and communication going on,” she says. “Families may be involved in services on multiple fronts, and the whole goal of [the model] is to make it less burdensome to the family and get the child what the child needs.”
Marion County’s experience with the model provided a template for neighboring counties to follow, says Shalonda McHenry Sims, chief of operations at Kids Central Inc., a community-based lead agency for child welfare services in central Florida. “Once we had the road map set up, it wasn’t hard to replicate,” she says. “[Implementing the model] was some work up front, I’m not going to lie, but it was worth it in the end.”
Other efforts have focused on reforming systems so they better address the issues that lead youth to cross over. In August 2020, the Children’s Bureau, Casey Family Programs, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and Prevent Child Abuse America launched the Thriving Families, Safer Children initiative, which will work with selected jurisdictions to move from reactive child welfare systems to ones that work proactively to prevent child maltreatment. The initiative will start at demonstration sites in South Carolina, Nebraska, and California/Los Angeles County.
The idea behind the initiative is to recognize the role that poverty plays in child maltreatment and to mitigate the risk of maltreatment by helping families with basic needs such as food, child care, and transportation, says Sandra Gasca-Gonzalez, vice president of the Center for Systems Innovation at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. “We’re looking at young people and families holistically,” she says. “We’re building a child and family well-being system.”
Hidden No More
A priority for social workers should be recognizing how systemic racism shapes how youth of color are treated in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems and advocating for more equitable systems overall, says Allison Gilbreath, MSW, policy analyst at Voices for Virginia’s Children. “Systemic racism is playing a key role in why some children are entering the systems at a much higher rate than other children,” she says.
Social workers serving youth must make it their regular practice to ask about system involvement during initial assessment so coordination with other services occurs from the beginning, Kolivoski says. Social workers can work within their agencies to improve communication with other systems—holding brown bag lunches, for example, can bring everyone together. Social workers can also advocate for the adoption of new practices to foster collaboration.
Recognizing and promoting protective factors in the lives of crossover youth is important, Hansel says. Particularly important is connecting youth with people whom they feel truly care for them, whether it be in their families, in their schools, or in their communities.
Social workers serving crossover youth must shift their focus from behaviors to needs, says Naomi Sutton Reddish, MSW, coordinator of the Child Welfare Stipend Program at Virginia Commonwealth University. “We have to let families and communities voice what they need, and then we can come on as partners,” she says. “The behavior is not going to change if we just keep addressing the behavior all day long. What is the behavior telling us?”
One of the hardest yet most vital actions social workers can take is to step back and allow crossover youth, their families, and their communities take the lead in voicing what is best for them, Gilbreath says. “Those closest to the pain should be closest to the power. As social workers, we are often not close to the pain,” she says. “We might have the degree, but we might not have the knowledge. Their voices are more important than ours.”
—Christina Reardon, MSW, LSW, is a freelance writer based in Harrisburg, PA, and an editorial adviser at Social Work Today.
Halemba, G., & Siegel, G. (2011, September). Doorways to delinquency: Multi-system involvement of delinquent youth in King County (Seattle, WA). National Center for Juvenile Justice. http://www.modelsforchange.net/publications/304
Herz, D. C., & Dierkhising, C. B. (2019, March). OJJDP dual system youth design study: Summary of findings and recommendations for pursuing a national estimate of dual system youth. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/grants/252717.pdf
Kolivoski, K. M., Goodkind, S., & Shook, J. J. (2017). Social justice for crossover youth: The intersection of the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Social Work, 62(4), 313-321. https://doi.org/10.1093/sw/swx034
Lee, S. Y., & Villagrana, M. (2015). Differences in risk and protective factors between crossover and non-crossover youth in juvenile justice. Children and Youth Services Review, 58, 18-27. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2015.09.001
Pecora, P. J., Whittaker, J. K., Barth, R. P., Borja, S., & Vesneski, W. (2018). The child welfare challenge: Policy, practice and research (4th ed.). Taylor & Francis Group.
Ryan, J. P., & Testa, M. F. (2005). Child maltreatment and juvenile delinquency: Investigating the role of placement and placement instability. Children and Youth Services Review, 27(3), 227-249. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2004.05.007