‘Dual-Status’ Youths: Broken Kids, Broken System
Acton Institute Powerblog

‘Dual-Status’ Youths: Broken Kids, Broken System

“Status.” Webster’s defines it as “high position or rank in society.” Yet for many young people, this could not be further from the truth. In the language of social workers and court systems, “dual-status” youths are young people who are involved in the juvenile justice system and child welfare system. Case in point:

She was born to an incarcerated mother. She was repeatedly abused by relatives with whom she spent much of her early life.

By the time she turned 10, she had been sexually abused by an older brother, a pimp, who forced her into prostitution.

She didn’t last long at foster homes and ended up living in group homes in the Northern California area. She ran away from placements dozens of times and continued prostituting herself.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Alicia — whose real name is being withheld to conceal her identity — repeatedly landed in juvenile detention on solicitation or related charges.

One of the biggest problems for these kids are that the adults in their lives who are most positively involved – social workers and probation officers – rarely, if ever, communicated. Even more concerning, probation officers are only involved if and when a child has trouble with the law, and a probation officer’s main concern is to make sure the child doesn’t end up in trouble again … but not necessarily fixing the issue that landed the child in trouble in the first place.

Dual-status children face huge issues:

Their cases typically present enormous challenges: Many of the children are chronic runaways who have suffered from severe physical or emotional abuse, neglect and abandonment. And they typically come from troubled homes often beset by domestic violence, substance abuse and mental illness.

It’s hard to say how many children become entangled in both the juvenile justice and child welfare systems, partly because of the historical bureaucratic divides between the two systems.

These children have very complex needs. Even when they do have caring adults in their lives (a teacher, a social worker, a foster parent), they often have a difficult time trusting or bonding with them. Frankly, most of these kids have been “taught” not to trust. And many of these children have no stable home life, and face the complex labyrinth of social services and courts on their own, or with whatever lawyer happens to be available at the time.

Neha Desai, an attorney who serves as policy adviser for the fledgling Dually Involved Youth Initiative in Santa Clara County, talks about what these kids face:

What happened with this youth, and with so many youth who fall into this, is the child welfare worker feels like there’s nothing for this kid: ‘We have placed her over and over again. She runs from every placement. She’s involved in dangerous activities, and we can’t protect her, and she’s going to get killed out on the streets and she needs to have the intervention of the juvenile justice system in order to keep her safe.’

The juvenile justice system says, ‘Are you kidding me? This is absolutely not a youth that belongs in the juvenile justice system. That would be criminalizing a kid for being a victim. I mean, they’re being sexually exploited, and you’re saying that they need to be detained in order to keep them safe, but that’s punishing them for being a victim.’

Then, there’s the cost. Placement for just one juvenile in a treatment facility can run into the tens of thousands of dollars in just a few short months.

Omaha, Nebraska, like many places, are trying to find ways for courts and social workers to work together, get children the services they need, keeping them out of the juvenile justice system and in school.

The Omaha reform effort emphasizes sharing data between the juvenile justice and child welfare systems and bringing together representatives of both systems, along with parents or foster parents and, in this case, school officials, to improve prospects for crossover youths.

Thus, the county attorney, the boy’s foster father, social workers, school staff and a probation officer who had worked with the youth came together with an eye toward finding a solution that would keep him from being prosecuted for fighting.

The result: a written agreement that the youth would avoid fighting, attend school regularly, return to therapy for anger management and attend a program designed to help him resist the temptation to join a gang.

The agreement specified the assault charge would be dropped if the boy — an African-American, like a heavily disproportionate share of dual-status kids — complied with all requirements by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

He did. Now, he’s doing well in school and has a good shot at going to college.

Reform is necessary, and it isn’t easy. Adults often don’t see the value of shifting priorities and roles in either the social service sector and juvenile justice. The children involved are tough to work with: they’ve been hurt over and over again, they are often lacking social and educational skills, and they don’t have many successful role models. This is yet another area where communities, churches and families can ask, “Where can we help? What can we do?”

No one should be a “dual-status” kid. They should be someone’s beloved child.

Read “‘Dual-status’ kids endure another kind of double jeopardy” at The Center for Public Integrity.

Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.