When Systems Collide: Gwen’s Story

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Franklin Cruz

When I worked in the Bronx criminal justice system, I encountered many examples of poor people of color who had profound needs that were being “met” by cycling them through jail, rather than identifying appropriate services or alternatives that would address the underlying causes of their arrests.

What was striking about so many of these individuals is that by the time they were caught up in the justice system, they had already been involved with multiple public services that should have been able to identify and help resolve their mental health issues, their addiction, their homelessness, their disability, or the many other issues that often co-occur with justice-involved populations.

Gwen, a young mother of 15, is a poignant example.  She had been in and out of group homes after being removed from her mother’s care due to allegations of neglect.  Fed up with the conditions in those homes, Gwen escaped to the streets—and came to the frequent attention of police who picked her up for petty theft and fights with other youth.

That landed her repeatedly in the juvenile justice system.

At the age of 16, she became a mother—which brought her into contact with the child welfare system. New York’s Administration for Children’s Services became involved, because Gwen still had no permanent home, being herself a ward of the state.  Her caseworker would refer her to programs to assist her in locating supportive housing—in high demand but low supply—as well as prescribe the standard “individualized plan” that included parenting classes regardless of who you were.

In juvenile court, Gwen was referred to anger management counseling and group therapy.  She also had regular check-ins with her probation officer, in addition to those with her caseworker from child welfare.  Remarkably, Gwen had stayed in school; but she had already been through six schools in five years, as she changed placements or was transferred.

Ultimately, she was expelled and placed in a special school for those students who could not thrive in New York City’s regular high schools, but had to miss classes and appointments to meet her other responsibilities with both the juvenile and child welfare systems.

When she eventually dropped out, she was sanctioned by juvenile probation for not keeping up with her studies, as required by the court.  During the two years I knew her, Gwen became pregnant again, struggled to see her first child who was still in placement, and eventually picked up criminal cases for getting into fights.

All the while, as she shuttled through juvenile court, criminal court, child welfare and family court, and the school system, Gwen’s life continued to spiral out of control.  She continued to violate conditions imposed upon her that kept building up and sometimes conflicted.  And she was never placed into supportive housing or into an adequate program to help her deal with her trauma and other potential mental health issues.

I would not say that Gwen’s story was typical, but she was neither rare nor unique.

While intuitively it might seem that Gwen’s attachment to so many systems, each with varying access to supportive services, would work to her benefit, she experienced what has become a common narrative of multi-system youth and adults.  They are caught among systems that collide instead of coordinate with each other.

The result is not surprising: enormous collateral damage to youth and families.  What’s worse, the Gwens in this country suffer worse outcomes despite the higher needs.  And they are almost always poor and of color.

There has been growing attention to the needs of dual status and “multi-system” youth over the past decade.  In addition to child welfare, juvenile justice and school systems, youth and families may be involved with service systems for the homeless and for individuals suffering from behavioral health problems.

But they pay a high price.  Young people involved in child welfare and juvenile justice systems are more likely to have experienced exposure to multiple, interpersonal trauma with long-term impacts than other youth.  Being held in juvenile detention centers or moved through the foster care system only exacerbates the trauma for these children, translating into more profound behavioral health problems and outbursts of antisocial behaviors that lead in turn to deeper involvement in the juvenile and ultimately criminal justice systems.

In many jurisdictions across the country, the case worker in child protective services may not even be aware of the juvenile justice case and certainly would not be speaking to juvenile probation about the case.

Schools are also disconnected even though they can play important roles in improving conditions for youth or exacerbating their challenges.  Zero tolerance disciplinary policies can be the first step in a young person’s involvement in juvenile justice (or complicate a pre-existing case).  Truancy may trigger not only juvenile justice involvement, but child welfare involvement with a neglect petition filed against the parent or guardian who now has a court case on top of everything else.

While youth may be able to get supportive services through schools, including through classification as special needs, they may also suffer the consequences of being labeled and treated as “problems.”  Even when a young person lands in the best school environment, they may not be there long enough to reap the benefits. Dual-status youth often change schools as they move through foster or group home placements.

Practitioners see young people and families caught between systems regularly.  We know a lot about what the impacts are.  We know some about the prevalence of the phenomenon.  Yet, there is so much more that we do not know.

Many jurisdictions have no idea how many children are or have been involved in child welfare systems and juvenile justice systems.  Add youth and families involved with other systems, and the crossover data are nonexistent.  The information systems across these agencies (not to mention the other youth and family serving agencies) are in silos. Not only does this mean that youth and families do not receive wraparound services that are optimized for their success; it has unfortunately shown that they suffer worse outcomes and are damaged and traumatized by being stuck between systems.

In 2011, King County, WA (Seattle) published Doorways to Delinquency, an analysis of its dual status population.  The landmark report provides one glimpse into quantifiable costs to young people and their families.  Two of every three youth referred to the juvenile justice system in King County had some contact or involvement with the child welfare system.  Dual status youth, particularly those with a child welfare history, became involved in the juvenile delinquency system at least a year earlier than their counterparts without child welfare histories.

Beyond their early involvement, they also recidivated at higher rates.  Within two years of their first offense, 70 percent of dual status youth were back in the juvenile justice system, twice the rate for other youth.

The collision of these systems around these young people is not just inefficient; it comes at a high price in the lives of the people they are supposed to serve.

Editor’s Note:  To learn more about dual status youth and some of the effective practices to help coordinate systems effectively, visit the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice at www.rfknrcjj.org

 Franklin Cruz is Chief Operating Officer and Program Director of the Justice Management Institute (JMI), a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the administration of justice.  Franklin, who currently leads JMI’s Fair Justice Initiative promoting equity improvement efforts in criminal justice, previously spent over a decade as a manager at a public defender office in Bronx, NY. He welcomes comments from readers.

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