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Juvenile Justice: Crossover Youth

As funding gets tighter, research advances and professionals within multiple systems tasked with the care of youth realize the need to work together, a pattern is emerging regarding specific groups of youth. One group is made up of those who experience abuse or neglect and end up part of the child welfare system. Awareness these youth end up disproportionately part of the juvenile justice system shows both systems need to collaborate to meet the needs of these crossover youth.


Crossover youth have involvement with the child welfare system and the juvenile justice system. Categorization of these youth is in its beginning stages. A Breakthrough Series Collaborative (BSC) on Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare Integration established three definitions to clarify these juveniles:

Crossover Youth: Any youth who has experienced maltreatment and engaged in delinquency. This is the broadest definition, because it refers to mistreated youth with such experiences regardless of whether the maltreatment and/or delinquency have come to the attention of the child welfare and/or delinquency system.   


Dually-Involved Youth: A subgroup of crossover youth who are simultaneously receiving services, at any level, from both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

Dually-Adjudicated Youth: A subgroup of dually-involved youth, encompassing only those youth who are concurrently adjudicated by both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

Regardless of which definition is used, the main issue is these youth need multi-system collaboration to have the chance to successfully transition into adulthood and reduce the likelihood of moving from the juvenile justice system into the adult system. As professionals in both child welfare and juvenile justice, we have the ability to ask questions, recreate paradigms and decrease the number of youth who fall into our systems.

Why is it important?

“There is a cartoon photo that depicts a scarecrow with his arms across his chest and his fingers extended to point in opposite directions,” states Helen Jones-Kelley, JD, Co-Chair, BSC in her Executive Summary. “Whenever I see it, it reminds me of the entities that broadly comprise our child serving system. For far too many years, mental health, education, child health, and especially child welfare and juvenile justice have pointed their fingers at each other when explaining why our collective system of care doesn’t work seamlessly on behalf of young people.” As professionals, it is our duty to not go with the status quo just because these thought patterns or systematic approaches have been the way we have always done things. As juvenile justice professionals we must keep in mind the goal of prevention and decreasing the impact of juvenile behaviors. We have to prevent ourselves from getting callous and believing delinquent youth are just going to end up criminal adults. I have been accused of living in a glass house when it comes to criminal behavior and intent of young people and I dispute that because I am aware of the harm and destruction created by youth. I also intend to keep my focus on helping young people with an awareness of emerging neurological science and a continual open-mind. I do not believe I am alone in this realistic optimism for our future generations. Part of this open-mindedness includes an understanding that the issues of crossover youth must be addressed.         

Research has firmly established a relationship between abuse and neglect and later delinquent behavior. In one of the first and most cited studies, Cathy Spatz Widom found that child abuse and neglect increased a juvenile’s risk of arrest for nonviolent crime by 55 percent and the risk of arrest for violent crime by 96 percent. Research has also shown that once a youth with child welfare involvement engages in delinquency, he or she is more likely to become deeply involved with the juvenile justice system. This engagement and penetration presents many issues and challenges for all the organizations responsible for the care of youth, including child welfare and juvenile justice.

The ethical requisite to address crossover youth exists, but so does the legal obligation. The Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act now includes a requirement that juvenile justice agencies better address the needs of youth who are at risk for delinquency due to a history of child abuse and neglect. “As a prosecutor in Miami, Florida, I represented the government in cases involving child maltreatment, as well as those alleging delinquent behavior,” explains Shay Bilchik, JD, Director, Center for Juvenile Justice Reform. “Although these two types of cases seemed quite different, it didn’t take me long to see how they intersected with one another. The ‘face sheets’ describing the prior history of the juvenile offenders told the story of the pathways they had followed, invariably starting with entries of abuse and neglect, leading to status offenses such as truancy, ungovernable behavior, and running away, and then into delinquency.”

We need to hold youth accountable while at the same time promoting positive development.

What can be done?

Like most issues, a one-size-fits-all solution to working with crossover youth does not exist. What is necessary is a multi-system approach and support at all levels of all the agencies involved. The BSC was one way one group of agencies got together and worked on practical evidence-based solutions to helping these youths. With support from the Casey Family Programs, the second cross-system BSC was created using BSC methodology in the field of juvenile justice. This BSC methodology looks at the system from a holistic perspective and integrates the collective wisdom of those involved in the change process. It gathers ideas and knowledge and facilitates action to advance systematic change. Through partnership with the Georgetown University Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, seven states (with a variety of agencies) were accepted into the BSC. These sites were the practice ground for intellectual exchange, programmatic collaboration and through their experience a model developed for others to institute their own multi-system approach.


One of the biggest challenges to a multi-system approach is that systems, for example child welfare and juvenile justice, as well as agencies within systems have individual missions, visions and goals which drive policies and practices. These are often seemingly very different. A closer looks usually reveals each system or agency foundational principles can act as common ground. At the heart of these organizations and most professionals is the desire to help children. Once a common ground is found, the biggest obstacle seems to be a misunderstanding about what the other systems do. Dialoging about system goals can bring each back to the foundation or common ground. Developing a synchronized path includes establishing how to provide services, access and share information, expend funding and ensure appropriate oversight of case management. This will take time, but with work from professionals involved, at all levels of each system, we can serve the needs of youth who are at-risk for entering adulthood wards of our system. 

Jones-Kelley sums these changes and opportunities up well, “I have always believed that we have most of the answers we need to enable us to better serve crossover youth; we simply need to create the opportunities for them to surface.”


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Michelle Perin worked as a police telecommunications operator with the Phoenix (AZ) Police Department for eight years. She has an M.S. in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University and writes full-time from Eugene, Oregon. For more information, visit