“Crossover youth” – children and youth who have experienced abuse, neglect or exploitation that engage in delinquent activities – are particularly vulnerable and pose unique challenges to both the foster care and juvenile justice systems.

More than 400,000 U.S. children are currently in foster care, including many “crossover youth” who enter into the juvenile justice system.

“Research has established a link between maltreatment and delinquency, and shows that the presence of abuse or neglect in a child’s background increases the risk of arrest as a juvenile by 55 percent and the risk of being arrested for a violent crime as a juvenile by 96 percent,” noted Lisa Nelson, a juvenile court officer in Iowa, during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing held last week during National Foster Care Month.

Undiagnosed or untreated mental health issues – resulting from experiences of abuse, neglect or exploitation that brought them into the child welfare system – are leading issues among crossover youth.

These challenges are often compounded by substance abuse resulting from self-medication.

The difficulty in helping “crossovers” results in part from the fact that these systems “have little or no interaction or coordination, and even simple information sharing is limited or non-existent,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said.

Jeffrey Lind, a Minnesota social services director, explained that “when youth have the potential for dual-system involvement … these systems can create and/or compound challenges for the youth and family” due to lack of coordination coupled with conflicting priorities and procedures.

The services that “crossover youth” do receive often “are not well aligned and at times inconsistent with one another,” said Macon Stewart of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University. “Consequently, these youth, as victims of traumatic experiences in their lives, are often retraumatized by the systems that were created to support and assist them.”

She noted that youths with positive attachments to their foster parents and those who were involved with religious organizations were less likely to commit delinquent acts.

This emphasis on the importance of positive support systems was echoed by Sonya Brown, a former crossover youth in Louisiana.

She shared her own experience of entering the foster care system, and later the juvenile justice system, as an example of the nearly “two-thirds of youth referred to juvenile courts [who] have some level of involvement with the child welfare system.”

Brown noted the importance of the support received at Boys Town – a faith-based group established in 1917 by a Catholic priest that provides help to at-risk children – where she is now a social worker.

The full congressional hearing can be viewed here.

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