They appear every day before judges, jail guards and hospital staff — young people first found to be victims of abuse and neglect and later perpetrators of crimes. They’re called “crossover” youth, “dual status” offenders, and kids commonly referred to as those who’ve “fallen between the cracks” of government systems that have failed to serve them.
They are young people much like Andre Taylor of Houston, Texas. He went from a life of early upheaval living with various relatives to becoming a runaway and a kid first detained by law enforcement at age 9, by his recollection. That led to months on end in juvenile hall with no one to come pick him up, and then a string of unstable foster placements.
Beginning in 2018, Texas justice officials set out to study and better serve those who’ve grown up like Taylor, who is now 25. They convened a Dual Status Task Force of roughly 80 experts who contributed to a recently released set of recommendations for the Texas state Supreme Court Children’s Commission. One particularly sobering statistic drove the work: Children who experience parental abuse or neglect are at a 47% greater risk of entering the juvenile justice system than their peers in the general population, according to a commonly cited Children and Youth Services Review study.
To upend this trajectory, three county courts are now making key changes recommended in December by the panel of experts, deploying a justice pathway that has shown some promising results in other Texas courtrooms. The model involves one judge presiding over the child’s foster care and criminal cases, rather than the more common, separate handling of cases — one in which the child is seen as victim, the other as culprit.
Proponents say weaving the two allows for a more holistic approach to the young person’s troubles, risks and needs, and ultimately better serves public safety. Why are they running, stealing, behaving destructively and defying the law? How can the behavior be turned around in a child acting from a place of deep trauma?
“These are the kids that you’ve got to pay more attention to,” said McLennan County District Court Judge Gary Coley, who co-chaired the Dual Status Task Force. “You can’t just let the systems play hot potato with these kids and pitch it back and forth — that’s what has traditionally happened.”
The “one family, one judge” model is already in practice in larger, urban regions of Texas, including Dallas, Bexar and Travis counties. It is now being tested in smaller, more rural areas of the state including Taylor County and courts in the Rio Grande Valley and Hill Country serving multiple counties.
McLennan County has taken a smaller scale approach to handling crossover cases. In that county, the court cases aren’t merged, but there are monthly meetings involving child protection and delinquency court judges, attorneys and CPS and probation staff to discuss children’s cases. Together, these professionals representing diverse interests plot a course of action.
None of that was available more than a decade ago, when Taylor was a kid with no home who kept getting locked up for fleeing his foster care placements.
In an interview, Taylor said he’d cycle through lockups and a seemingly endless shuffle of group and foster homes. But every chance he got, he said, he’d run away again — always hoping to make it back to his mom, who was in and out of jail in California. Each time, he was eventually caught and sentenced again to detention. By his count, he did seven stints in juvenile hall before he turned 18.
“I spent three years of my life in juvenile hall for runaway charges because I was being mistreated,” Taylor said.
The last time he was arrested while in foster care, he said he found an abandoned building to sleep in. But when the police discovered him, he was charged with trespassing and assault for tussling with the officer when he tried to evade arrest.
“I had kind of got hot with them,” he recalled. “I just didn’t care about life.”
This time around,16-year-old Taylor remembers being sent to county jail rather than juvenile hall. “There’s no more little boy jail, they’re sending you up there with the murderers,” he said.
Now in his 20s, Taylor continues to face criminal charges, an all-too-common pattern.
When compared to their peers who avoid trouble with the law, foster youth who end up in the juvenile justice system face higher rates of homelessness and incarceration as adults, poorer mental and physical health, and additional barriers to education and employment.
A 2017 study in Los Angeles found that 83% of criminally involved youth had prior contact with the child welfare system. Nationally, “upwards of 50%” of youth in juvenile delinquency court have current or prior contact involvement, according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice.
Foster youth are commonly arrested for minor transgressions — behavior that in most family homes would be dealt with privately without law enforcement, things like getting into fights at school, spray painting graffiti or setting off fireworks.
With no parent to explain away the not-uncommon teenage behavior, and vow to authorities to keep a closer watch, the outcome can be a jail cell used for a time-out room. That’s what a 2017 San Francisco Chronicle investigation found, after reviewing hundreds of dubious arrests in children’s shelters in California. A handful of abused and neglected children described in the exposé were arrested for “inciting a riot” after a cake fight during movie night. Another child was sent to juvenile hall on battery charges after hitting someone with a bag of hot dog buns.
“We over-criminalize that behavior instead of treating it as a cry for help or treating it as a sign of a traumatized youth,” said Brett Merfish, director of youth justice for the advocacy group Texas Appleseed.
Foster children in residential group facilities are particularly vulnerable to arrest. In these high-tension settings, where dozens of traumatized children live under one roof supervised by shift workers, law enforcement is often the first line of response to their predictable emotional outbursts. Scuffles with other residents or punching a staff member during a restraint can result in assault charges. Smashing group home property; a vandalism charge.
“You’ve got like 100 kids, and they all can’t get along, none of them have boundaries,” said Bexar County District Court Judge Lisa Jarrett, who co-chaired the state’s task force.
And once locked up, there are typically too few foster care placements willing to accept criminally involved youth with behavioral challenges, further delaying their release.
“Kids in CPS care get lost in detention,” Jarrett said. “No one is pushing to get this child released — there’s nowhere to get him released to.”
A 2011 study from researchers in Pennsylvania and Los Angeles found that “crossover” youth experience longer lengths of stay out of their homes, more frequent placement disruptions and higher chances of being sent to live in congregate care settings. They also have more complex trauma, which is then compounded by each early brush with the justice system.
Historically, each of the 254 counties in the sprawling Lone Star State have had different approaches to handling these children’s complex cases. In many of the more rural areas, the child welfare and juvenile justice systems operate separately from one another. Judges in far flung communities say there’s poor communication between probation departments and child welfare agencies, leaving them with an incomplete picture of a child’s circumstances when it comes time to rule.
The two sets of authorities can also have conflicting approaches. A kid who runs away and steals food after going missing from a group home, for example, may be seen by law enforcement as a thief and a probation violator. A social worker who’d known the child for years might focus on their desperate upbringing, lack of safety in group care facilities, and fight-or-flight responses to early traumas.
In court, this disconnect can lead to conflicting or duplicative orders from the judges handling the children’s cases, leading to confusing case plans or requirements to complete multiple versions of the same service.
The American Bar Association has long called on juvenile courts to create a single-judge model for kids straddling the two systems.
“If a judge is aware of all the different facets of what’s going on in the case, then in theory, that judge can help the family reach a better outcome,” said Nadia Seeratan, deputy director of the bar association’s Center on Children and the Law.
District Court Associate Judge April Propst, who is overseeing the single-judge model in Taylor County, said she’s already seeing the benefits of the collaborative approach, which often boils down to simply knowing more about the child at the heart of the case. She said it has also made court orders for kids and families more clear and easy to comply with, and has reduced inefficiency and saved precious resources.
“I feel like I’m getting better information,” Propst added. “And if we don’t have the information, I feel like it’s easier for us to obtain it.”
In Bexar County, “one family, one judge” has been in effect for more than a decade. Judge Jarrett, who handles these cases, said the model has led to children getting out of detention more quickly, and having greater access to mental and behavioral health services and supports — instead of more punitive measures. Jarrett said viewing the cases holistically has helped shift the mindset of people working with crossover youth as well; probation staff better recognize the underlying trauma influencing children’s delinquent behavior and are more apt to show some flexibility and opt for diversion when possible.
What’s more, she said her problem-solving court is able to order up family therapy, parenting classes and drug treatment, which can reduce lengthy foster care separations.
“A majority of our dual status kids just have a lot of trauma, and they just need counseling,” Jarrett said. “So if we can do that while helping their family as well, we can get reunification a lot faster.”
While the judges involved are enthusiastic, they say several hurdles remain. Some counties have said that CPS and probation officers don’t get along well and too often have opposing views. And working closely together can take some getting used to.
“I don’t know if everybody’s always played in the same playing field together,” said Hill Country Court Judge Cheryll Mabray, who is running the most rural of the three pilot sites. “Everybody has different ideas and training.”
Another key concern is inadequate resources, particularly in rural regions. Smaller counties in Texas have leaner staff and less access to technology that can be helpful. Some regions also lack local access to programs that can be provided in lieu of detention, like in-patient drug treatment.
The judges involved hope that the pilot programs will build support for greater public investment in the model, and demonstrate its effectiveness statewide.
“You would like to think that kids throughout the state are treated equally, no matter how populous their home is,” said Judge Coley. “Hopefully what you can do through some of the dual status work is to try to equalize that, so that you don’t get punished for just living in someplace that doesn’t have the same services.”