by Erica Hellerstein
Foster children often exist in society’s shadow. Many come from communities with high rates of poverty, violence, domestic abuse, and trauma. But there’s another group that is even more likely to suffer from the worst outcomes: foster youth who are arrested and involved in the juvenile justice system.
Despite the heightened vulnerability of this population, nominally identified by many experts as “crossover youth,” it is only recently that there has been an uptick in policies designed to improve their lives and prospects for the future.
In October of 2012, The Sierra Health Foundation launched the Positive Youth Justice Initiative (PYJI), a $3.3 million initiative aiming to improve the outcomes of young people with a history in the child welfare system, currently engaged in the juvenile justice system.
According to Sierra Health’s Positive Youth Justice Briefing Paper, the initiative “seeks to affect developmental paths — repeat criminal behavior, education failure, lack of employment experience, untreated trauma, social and familial disconnection — that have been shown to have negative long-term effects for this extraordinarily vulnerable population.”
Through a competitive application process, the foundation selected six county agencies to participate: probation departments in Alameda, Sacramento, San Diego, San Joaquin, Yolo, and Vallejo City Unified School District.
The Foundation will grant each of the six counties $75,000 to plan localized programs that will encourage crossover youth stay in school—and discourage them from returning to juvenile detention. If approved, the district will receive a two-year, $400,000 grant to implement the formulated program.
“Our theory is that county-level probation systems or juvenile justice systems can meet their positive safety and rehabilitative responsibilities through positive youth justice services,” said Matt Cervantes, a Senior Program Officer at the Sierra Health Foundation.
The foundation developed its framework for the initiative based on findings from a slew of study reports. Most notably, it referenced a study funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation entitled Young Adult Outcomes of Youth Exiting Dependent or Delinquent Care in Los Angeles County. Authored by Dennis P. Culhane, the 2011 study found membership in the crossover group to be “a strong and consistent predictor of less desirable outcomes.”
The report concluded that, as compared to foster youth with no history in the juvenile justice system, crossover youth were twice as likely to be heavily involved in public systems as adults, three times as likely to have spent time in jail, 1.5 times more likely to receive welfare, and 50 percent less likely to have consistent employment.
“This study provides compelling evidence that these young adults, especially the crossover youth, should be targeted with housing support, education, employment services and mentoring, if the county and the state are to avoid a lifetime of public dependence by this highly vulnerable population,” said Culhane in a press release that accompanied the study. “The good news is that this is a population that can be easily targeted with assistance and that current costs to the county could be potentially offset by reduced incarceration and public assistance costs.”
“While positive youth development is not currently found in abundance in juvenile justice settings, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests it could be an effective juvenile justice intervention,” Matt Cervantes and Chet Hewitt of the Sierra Health Foundation wrote in the paper Rethinking Juvenile Justice: Promoting the Health and Well-Being of Crossover Youth.
The Positive Youth Justice Initiative proposes intervention in four ways:
- Promoting “positive youth development,” which means implementing interventions that meet youths’ developmental needs in education, work, healthy relationships, and mental health.
- Developing “trauma-informed care,” which acknowledges the trauma experienced by children, and creates interventions to minimize its repercussions.
- Employing “wraparound services” to address the problem-solving and coping skills of young people, their family members, and other positive adults in their lives. A
- Improving the “operational capacity” of counties: their data collection and reporting systems, assessment tools, and implementation of staff development.
What happens when the money runs out? Often, it can be hard for both public and private agencies to sustain grant-based programs like the one being offered by Sierra Health when funds dry up. The initiative three years to accomplish structural change for youth in the juvenile justice system, might be difficult to accomplish.
Cervantes had a different perspective.
“The key part of this would be not thinking of this as a program, but helping categorize more systemic change,” he said. “This is a positive model. Putting these opportunities in place, helping address mental and physical health challenges, and supporting young people earlier could certainly save the counties and state money, and improve their long-term health aspects.”
–Erica Hellerstein is a student at University of California-Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism