The Child Welfare/Juvenile Justice Link

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Your article in the April issue, “A Swift Kick in the Pants,” described chronic sexual molestation of boys in a Texas juvenile correctional facility. Reports that such abuse was fairly common statewide are shocking. Reports that conditions are similar in California, and to some extent in many other states, suggest serious system breakdown.

While staff selection, program, supervision, policies and administrative oversight were all factors, we should also consider broader systemic issues.

Services for juvenile delinquents once were closer to the child welfare system. This proximity had a number of advantages. The line between dependent and neglected children and juvenile delinquents can be exceedingly narrow. Most delinquent youngsters have been abused or neglected, or both. The needs of the two groups of youth are not necessarily different, but the systems they enter may treat them very differently.

The approaches used by child welfare are more appropriate for most teenagers than are less treatment-oriented correctional programs. Perhaps even more significant, when children in the child welfare system are adjudicated as delinquent, the child welfare system can comfortably close the record and forget them. They become someone else’s problem.

If they were to stay in the child welfare system, responsibility would not end with that change in legal designation, and more emphasis on preventing delinquency might be developed.

Until 1969, the federal role in juvenile delinquency issues was carried out by the U.S. Children’s Bureau, along with child welfare services. But the government, in its wisdom, established the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in 1969, separating responsibility for child welfare programs from responsibility for programs that address juvenile delinquency. States were not required to follow suit, but many did.

Reconnecting those services needs to be considered.

Also, many states license residential group care for teens. Why doesn’t Texas? And all states? Licensing does not provide foolproof protection from abuse, or always produce positive programs, but it certainly increases the odds.

Jake Terpstra
Grand Rapids, Mich.

(The writer is a retired child welfare services specialist from the U.S. Children’s Bureau.)