High rates of mental illness. Younger involvement in the juvenile justice system. A higher likelihood of being homeless as a young adult.
Those are some of the troubling findings of a recent report examining outcomes for youth, especially girls, involved in both the foster care and juvenile justice systems in Washington.
The study’s authors looked at data for all youth charged with a crime over a 13-year period, and then looked at the subset of about 8,000 girls and 10,700 boys who had also spent time in foster care.
Marna Miller is a senior researcher with the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, which authored the report at the request of lawmakers. She said it’s complicated to tease out the reasons why youth involved in the foster care and juvenile justice system fare so poorly.
“We can’t be sure whether these really unhappy outcomes are due to whatever prompted the state to remove them or was it the foster care experience,” Miller said. “It’s hard to know.”
Children and teens involved in both foster care and the juvenile justice system are called “dually-involved youth” in the report. Among dually-involved girls, 9.5 percent received their first criminal charge before age 13, compared with 4.7 percent of girls who were involved in the juvenile justice system but never spent time in foster care. The dually-involved girls also had more felony charges, on average, by age 18 than the girls only involved in the juvenile justice system.
And their mental-health needs are particularly stark. Seventy-nine percent of dually-involved girls had “any indication of mental illness” by age 18, compared with 36 percent of girls involved in the juvenile justice system.
“I was consistently surprised at how much more disadvantaged the dually-involved girls were than girls just involved in the juvenile justice system,” Miller said. “It was consistent. It was across almost every outcome we looked at.”
Tarra Simmons is an attorney and director of the Civil Survival Project, which helps remove legal and financial barriers for people after they get released from prison. She spent time in foster care as a child and was incarcerated as an adult after being arrested for delivery of oxycodone, possession of marijuana with intent to deliver and unlawful possession of a firearm. She's now running for a seat in the Legislature.
“It’s very prevalent that once you’re system-involved as a child that the trajectory of your life fundamentally changes for the worse, unless you have serious interventions including access to mental-health therapy and supports,” Simmons said.
Being separated from family and placed to live with strangers compounds trauma that children in such precarious situations already have faced, Simmons said. That’s why she said the focus should be on keeping families together.
“I think we need to put all of our effort into intensive case management for families that are struggling before we ever consider removal of a child,” Simmons said.
She said the state should do more to make it possible for, say, a grandparent who’s been in recovery from substance abuse to take custody of a child so that the child can stay with a relative.
The federal government has made it a goal to prevent more children from being removed from their families in the first place. In 2018, Congress approved the Family First Prevention Services Act to direct more money toward keeping families together.
Jeannie Darneille, a Democratic state senator representing the 27th District in Tacoma, sponsored the bill that led to a budget proviso requesting the report on girls involved in the foster care and juvenile justice systems. She agreed that the focus should be on prevention.
“We’re looking at ways to keep families intact, to build services around them, so that they don’t lose their children into the foster care system, because the data shows that even a short stay in foster care will have a very negative impact on children,” Darneille said.