By Mattilyn H. Karst

Of the 415,000 youth in foster care in America, half have been arrested at least once and a third  have spent time in detention. That’s according to testimony from the recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, “Supporting Youth in the Foster Care and Juvenile Justice Systems.”

The majority of these youth are between the ages of 14 to 16 and have experienced some form of abuse or neglect, making them susceptible to a myriad of problems, including academic problems, chemical dependence, and mental health challenges. Foster youth also frequently move homes and many times have to start at new schools, which can cause them to act out in response to their changing circumstances. With few preventative services and support systems in place, it becomes all too easy for youth to give into their anger and commit petty crimes or run away from their current placement.

Testimony from the witnesses claimed that when youth in foster care are arrested or taken into juvenile court, their involvement in the child welfare system is often overlooked. Without making that connection, the courts are unable to accurately evaluate why the juvenile might be acting out and may impose inappropriate sentences that are not rehabilitative. More needs to be done to ensure that “crossover youth,” or youth involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, are identified and provided appropriate services.

Sonya Brown, formerly a “crossover youth,” testified that an absence of preventive programs and lack of attention to her story led to unjust incarceration. In her case, she was incarcerated for running away. Sadly, many former foster youth have criminal records because of such infractions. When taken to court, the judicial system often fails to evaluate the mental and emotional state of foster youth and properly evaluate the reasons why foster youth are inclined to run away.

Foster youth often run away because they are trying to find sanctuary, or any place where they feel safe, not to be defiant. The juvenile justice system and child welfare agencies should be better equipped to communicate with one another so that incarceration does not become the default placement for these crossover youth.

As Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., stated during the hearing, “incarceration of young people for low-level infractions or offenses deprives them of what they need the most.” What these youth need are secure families, the ability to obtain an education, and community-based programs and services that will help them achieve stability and empowerment. Juvenile detention does not promote the positive and healthy development of foster youth.

Several states and stakeholders in the child welfare sector have recognized the inconsistency in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems and recommend increasing coordination between the two systems. The witnesses at the hearing gave many feasible recommendations to the committee, including:

  • The unification of all systems that serve children in order to assess and treat foster youth holistically;
  • Preventive programs to help families stay together; and
  • A new system to electronically track youth so that child welfare agencies are immediately alerted when the youth come into contact with the juvenile justice system.

Many local governments are reforming their policies to better serve crossover youth, including the Dually Involved Youth Project in Beltrami County, Minn., that integrates the child welfare and juvenile justice systems by incorporating restorative group conferencing and intervention program specialists to help each individual get on a path of positive change.

The crossover issue is not just being explored by states. Last year, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., introduced the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act, which seeks to improve the outcomes for foster care youth when they charged for a crime. The bill calls for the implementation of mental or substance abuse illness screens, ensuring that youth who run away from abusive environments are not criminally charged, and calls for states to use evidence-based programs to address the challenges faced by distressed youth.

It is imperative that the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act is passed. This bill has the potential to make a significant impact in the lives of many vulnerable youth and put them on a successful path forward.

Mattilyn Karst is a summer policy intern at First Focus studying public policy and sociology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She can be reached at