Spotlight on Diversity Research

Determinants of the transition from child welfare to juvenile justice among maltreated youth

New research suggests that maltreated racial minority youth are at high risk of crossover from the child welfare to the juvenile justice system.

By Amanda Hasselle

Approximately 30 percent of children in the child welfare system (CWS) engage in delinquent behaviors that result in juvenile justice system (JJS) transition. Maltreatment is one of the most common risk factors associated with crossover into JJS, purportedly increasing risk for delinquency via social learning. Previous research indicates that: increasing number and chronicity of maltreatment incidents contribute to poorer developmental outcomes; disadvantaged family background (i.e., poverty, instability, domestic violence) increases risk for youth service system transition; and social risk factors (i.e., race, age, gender) predict likelihood of JJS crossover. Yet, most studies on CWS-JJS transition have employed retrospective designs. Prospectively examining CWS-JJS transitions among maltreated children may illuminate critical intervention periods and prevent sustained system involvement.

Vidal et al. (2016) prospectively tracked maltreated youth referred to Child Protective Services (CPS) to identify patterns of risk for children who transitioned from CWS to JJS (“crossover” group). The sample consisted of 10, 850 maltreated children. Maltreatment records were reviewed when children were ages 3-13, while JJS records were reviewed when children were 10-18. About half of the children were boys (54 percent), with an average age of 6.7 at the time of their index CPS event. Almost 3 percent of maltreated children transitioned from CWS into the JJS, and the first JJS adjudication typically occurred within six years of initial CWS involvement. Older age, male gender, Black race, Hispanic ethnicity, re-maltreatment, neglect, and familial receipt of public assistance were significant risk factors for transition into the JJS, after controlling for social factors, CWS case characteristics (i.e, prior victimization, maltreatment types), and familial characteristics (i.e., parental substance use, domestic violence).

Black children were more than twice as likely to experience JJS transition, compared to White children, even after accounting for case and familial differences. Hispanic children were also more likely to crossover, compared to White children. Racial disparities in various service systems are well-documented, with racial/ethnic minority youth with a history of CWS involvement disproportionately referred to the JJS. Furthermore, Black and Hispanic crossover youth are more likely to be rearrested compared to White crossover youth. It is possible that biased race attributions underlie these findings; specifically, racial minorities are more likely to be perceived as dangerous, and delinquent behavior among minority youth is more likely to be perceived as representing a character flaw.

Vidal et al.’s (2016) findings highlight the need for future research into factors that underlie racial and ethnic disparities among crossover youth, as well as strategies to mitigate these disparities by intervening at critical points in the system. Findings also call for interventions to alleviate the negative impact of economic hardship on families, suggesting that services for children impacted by maltreatment should not solely address maltreatment and its consequences directly, but also employ a metasystems approach that considers contextual factors that could impact children’s development. Finally, professionals involved in the CWS and JJS should be trained in culturally sensitive practices, with the goal of better addressing the unique needs and experiences of minority youth and better supporting families living in poverty.

Vidal, S., Prince, D., Connell, C. M., Caron, C. M., Kaufman, J. S., & Tebes, J. K. (2017). Maltreatment, family environment, and social risk factors: Determinants of the child welfare to juvenile justice transition among maltreated children and adolescents. Child Abuse & Neglect, 63, 7-18.