May is Foster Care Awareness Month, a time to recognize that we can each play a part in supporting the lives of the 437,000 children and youth in foster care each year, 57,000 of whom are placed in congregate care. In the youth justice system, 42,000 children sleep in out of home placements (youth detention centers, prisons, and adult facilities) every night. In both systems, the vast majority of these youth could be served in less restrictive settings—that cost less, and yield much better outcomes.
A lesson that became all too urgent at the beginning of this month, when Cornelius Frederick, a 16-year old who had been recently orphaned, tragically lost his life after being aggressively restrained for throwing a sandwich. Cornelius had been placed at Lakeside Academy in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a for profit company run bySequel Youth and Family Services, with a long documented history of complaints of abuse and improper restraints at the facility.
The relationship between foster care and youth justice has long been established, and is often coined the “foster care to delinquency pipeline”. The problem is so significant, that nearly 1:4 foster youth will become involved in the criminal justice system within two years of leaving care, according to the Juvenile Law Center. Furthermore, we know that youth who end up in congregate care (group homes) are 2.5 times more likely to get involved in the youth justice system. Unsurprisingly children of color are much more likely to experience group home and secure placements than white children. This is unacceptable, and a call to all of us to work cross-sector to ensure every child is connected to caring, responsible adults in a home, where they can be nurtured to their full potential.
Research in both child welfare and youth justice is abundantly clear—children do much better if they are raised in a family setting, with caregivers who can guide and care for them. This is true across the lifespan of a child and into early adulthood. In 2018, two federal laws were passed (or updated) that respond to this research by incentivizing states to reduce reliance on out of home placements and secure facilities, and instead focus on prevention services that keep children into homes, families, or therapeutic placements in small settings with appropriate supports. The Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) and the Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) both dedicate resources for states to build out prevention efforts to ensure that children remain in the least restrictive environment with the supports they need to succeed.
For years, youth justice agencies have relied on a blend of juvenile justice and Title IV E funding to get reimbursement for services for children with delinquency adjudications who met the federal foster care criteria and are placed with a foster family or in therapeutic placements. In some jurisdictions, like Kentucky and Washington DC, they have identified and trained foster families to work with children with delinquency adjudications with impressive success, while using a variety of resources. Now, states will be required to develop plans that help stabilize children in their homes, reduce the need for congregate care and build the capacity of communities to support children in the child welfare system. It’s a great opportunity for youth justice advocates to ensure that children in juvenile justice who are candidates for foster care have options.
States have also leveraged the prevention dollars in Title V of JJDPA to invest in community interventions that show positive success (such as Multi-Systemic Therapy and Family Functional Therapy). After reauthorization, the list of eligible prevention services was expanded, and under Title II, the JJDPA allows for state plans to include services that address children in the child welfare system, or those at risk of becoming involved, as well as family strengthening programs that ensure families have the skills they need to support children through adolescence.
As Foster Care Awareness Month winds to a close, CFYJ, with support from the Annie E Casey Foundation, will be working with a dozen states across the country to identify opportunities for more child welfare/youth justice partnerships as these two federal laws progress toward full implementation. In identifying opportunities to build child-centered responses to children who are already candidates for foster care, we are taking a critical step in ensuring that tragedies like those that happened to Cornelius—never happen again.