Is Running Away From a Child Welfare Placement a Risk for Entry into the Justice System?

Post developed by Rosemary Sarri in coordination with Linda Kimmel.

This blog includes a brief report of ongoing research on career patterns of youth who drift from the child welfare system to the juvenile and adult justice system. It is taken from a paper that has been published by Rosemary Sarri, Elizabeth Stoffregen and Joseph Ryan, researchers with affiliations in the University of Michigan’s Center for Political Studies (CPS), Population Studies Center (PSC), and School of Social Work.

Rosemary SarriA growing body of research has shown that children who run away from foster care placement increase their probability of subsequent involvement in the juvenile and adult justice systems, especially for males. In the research reported here we used Michigan Department of Human Services and Wayne County administrative records to examine the experiences of two samples of youth in the child welfare system, one of which were youth who had run away from placement one or more times, and they were compared with a matched sample who had no history of running away from placement. The study covered their experiences over an eleven-year period from 2003-2011. Those selected were twelve years or older and had been assigned to the agency because of neglect or abuse by a parent. Most were also identified as having a behavioral problem such as mental illness, substance abuse or delinquency. As is the case throughout the U.S., children in this study were disproportionately youth of color (84%). Most were children of single parents and resided in urban areas of poverty, unemployment, crime and social disorganization. A slight majority were female, most of whom were placed in individual foster care and small community agencies whereas males were more likely to be placed in residential care away from their home community. When the males ran away, they typically returned to their home communities and were involved in “survival crime” until apprehended. On the other hand most females remained in their home community and often circulated among family relatives but were seldom arrested.

Male youth who ran away from placement were more likely to be involved in the juvenile justice system than were females, and their crimes tended to be more serious. Large differences occurred for males of color with respect to commission of adult crimes with several arrested for adult crimes when they were minors. Among youth of color 143 (39%) were charged with adult crimes, and many were sentenced to adult prisons for extended periods. A minority of youth who did not run away also ended up with adult arrests, primarily after they “aged out” of the child welfare system between 18-21 years.

Intercorrelational analysis identified several factors as correlated with running away from placement and entry into the justice system including gender, race, age of first placement, percent of time in residential care, number of placements, juvenile and adult arrests and legal status.

We used cross-tabulation and t-tests to explore the differences between justice-involved and non- justice-involved groups. Event history analysis was utilized to examine the influence of individual variables on justice contact. It then considers the differential impact between groups on the timing of this event. In this study, youth entered and remained in the observation period (2003-2011) for different periods of time. Thus, their exposure to the risk of justice involvement varied from the number of days between the first runaway and the final day of observation, 12/31/2011. The average time at risk of arrest was 4.5 years (1645 days) and the minimum period of risk was 2.7 years (985 days).

The results from the Cox regression are presented in Table 1, including the coefficient and standard error for each independent variable as well as the hazard ratio. The remainder is multiplied by 100, the result is equal to the percentage change in the hazard of arrest. In the full Cox regression model, we controlled for a wide range 0f important factors that may help to explain contact with the justice system. These included race, gender, length of time in substitute care placement, number of changes in placement, age of first contact with child welfare, a substantiated allegation of exposure to neglect and placement in a congregate care setting. With respect to the primary research question, youth who ran away from placement were significantly more likely to experience subsequent contact with the justice system, compared to those who did not run away (hazard ratio of 239%). Runaway status had the largest effect on subsequent justice contact. Females were significantly less likely to experience a subsequent justice contact (hazard ration decreased by 23%). The hazard ratio increased by 206% for youth who had had a congregate care placement. There was no association between subsequent justice contact and length of time in placement, neglect status and placement instability when other important covariates were controlled. The lack of racial significance may be explained by the fact that Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans were all classified as “other”.

AWOL Status and Likelihood of Justice Contact

We sought to answer the question of whether youth who ran away from their child welfare placements were likely to experience negative outcomes in terms of their entry into the juvenile and/or adult justice system. Children are placed in child welfare agencies when they experience abuse and/or neglect in their homes with the expectation that they will be helped to become successful adults. Many of these youth experienced several years in congregate care which did not prepare them to function normatively in contemporary society. Moreover, in those agencies they interacted with others like themselves and received primarily custodial care. The observation that many end up in the justice system suggests the need for alternate ways within their home communities where they can be helped to transition to successful adulthood.

Anyone who is interested in the full article can refer to “Running away from child welfare placements: justice system risk,” Children and Youth Services Review 67 (2016) 191-1998.

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