Dual Involvment in Child Welfare, Juvenile Justice Connects to Major Struggles in Adulthood

Print More

Los Angeles youths who exit both foster care and juvenile justice earn less as young adults and cost the public more than youths who only exit foster care, and are more than twice as likely to have been treated for a serious mental illness, according to a study released today by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

Young Adult Outcomes of Youth Exiting Dependent Or Delinquent Care In Los Angeles County” found that a sliver of the so-called “crossover” youths account for much of the public costs of the larger group when they are young adults.

The findings are hardly surprising; there is wide recognition that crossover youth fare worse than youths who only come into contact with one agency. But the California study shows that in many cases, the crossover youths experience negative outcomes at twice the rate.

“We didn’t realize crossover youth would have such striking distance,” said Dennis Culhane, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the study’s six authors. “We knew it would find they’d be troubled, but didn’t expect this difference of degree to show up.”

Crossover youths accounted for an average of $35,171 in public service utilization costs, such as being jailed or receiving welfare benefits, which is nearly three times the $12,532 average for other foster youth.

Eighty-two percent received some state benefits – welfare, food stamps or Medicaid – compared with 68 percent of other foster care exiters.

The research suggests that two major factors for the disparity were treatment for mental health disorders and further criminal activity. Four years into adulthood, 24 percent of the crossover youth had been treated for schizophrenia or psychosis; the comparable rate for foster youths was 11 percent.

Two-thirds of the crossover youths had a jail stay in their first four years after foster care; they were three times more likely to land in jail than other foster youths in the study. The average cumulative cost of jail-stays over the first four years of adulthood ranged from $18,430 for child welfare youth to $33,946 for crossover youth.

A quarter of the crossover youth accounted for three quarters of the public costs associated with the group during young adulthood. Culhane said a follow-up study is already in the works to determine whether other factors can help predict which crossover youths will struggle and require high levels of public assistance.

“To the extent you can do that, there is huge potential for offsetting costs” by making better preventative investments, Culhane said. Mental health treatment, he predicts, “is going to be a major factor.”

The study suggests that connecting more crossover youths to employment opportunities is another potential avenue for improvement. After four years, foster youth had earned an average of about $30,000 and crossover youth had earned $14,000. Crossover youth were half as likely to have consistent employment.

The Los Angeles-based Hilton Foundation plans to use the findings of this study to craft a strategy for working with crossover youth and seek approval for a project this winter, said Jeannine Balfour, the foundation’s senior program officer for domestic programs.

Culhane said Los Angeles County, is an ideal place to pilot strategies for helping crossover youths because of the recently passed state law extending foster care until 21 and the fact that the county has an integrated data system for all of its departments.

“That’s very unique,” Culhane said. “You could pilot something, and have immediate information to make sure you’re getting the right people.”

The study used records from thousands of youths who exited foster care from an out-of-home placement in 2002 and 2004, and juvenile records for any youths who exited probation from 2000 to 2006. Those records were then cross-referenced against service utilization data from the county and state agencies that handle health, criminal justice, employment and welfare.

There were a total of 596 youths who exited foster care in one of those years and also exited probation. On most measures of adult outcomes, they fared significantly worse than the youths who came into contact with one system.

The demographics of the crossover kids, two-thirds of whom were male, ran inverse to racial data of the probation-exiting population: African-American youth accounted for 25 percent of probation exiters but more than half (56 percent) of crossover youths; 57 of teens who exited probation were Latino but they account for only 30 percent of crossover youth.