Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Adwoa Masozi   202.558.7974   x306 / Mobile:  202.445.9989
Zerline Hughes 202.558.7974   x308  / Mobile:  202.320.1029

Keeping Families Together Leads to Fewer Kids in the Prison Pipeline

Keeping Families Together Leads to Fewer Kids in the Prison Pipeline
Youth in D.C.’s child welfare system can be better served if D.C. policy makers prioritize the needs of its vulnerable children and their families by investing in the mental health and employment programs, and education systems that support them.

WASHINGTON, D.C. —Children in Washington, D.C.’s child welfare system are at greater risk for involvement in the justice system due to abuse, neglect and home removal that stem from conditions of poverty, community instability, parental incarceration and parental substance abuse and mental health issues, according to a report released today by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI). In protecting children from abuse and neglect, child protective agencies are responsible for working closely with parents and families to ensure that child removal is the last resort. Even amidst aggressive reforms, the District is still removing children from their homes at higher rates than other comparable cities, which adversely impacts the goal of increasing positive life outcomes for youth who are involved in the child welfare system.

Fostering Change: How Investing In D.C.’S Child Welfare System Can Keep Kids Out of the Prison Pipelinelooks at the need for robust community investments to increase public safety and youth outcomes in areas such as Wards 5, 7 and 8, which are majority African American having also the highest rate of children living below the poverty line and in foster care. The District has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, which has direct and long-term implications on the city’s youth. Parental incarceration is now the third highest reason for child welfare system involvement in the District, following neglect and abuse. The community and family impacts of mass incarceration are disproportionately prevalent among African-American children and children of parents with low levels of educational attainment. Nationally, African-American children are three times more likely than Latino children and seven times more likely than white children to have a parent in prison and incarcerated parents tend to face significant barriers to retaining their parental rights.

“We agree on the need for smart reinvestment to improve outcomes for children, families, and the community,” said Judith Sandalow, Executive Director of Children’s Law Center, an organization that provides legal services to children, families, and caregivers in the District. “Preventing abuse, neglect, and the trauma of involvement with the child welfare system offers a better return on investment than having to pay for more intensive and expensive services later.”

“Improving public safety and life outcomes for youth in D.C. requires city leaders to make smart investments in all youth serving systems,” added Paul D. Ashton, JPI Research and Grants Coordinator and report co-author. “It is only through robust investments and cross-systems collaboration in education, youth employment, mental health and child welfare that we can work to effectively reduce juvenile justice system involvement, increase District wide public safety and ensure that the District’s youth have the opportunities to achieve positive life outcomes.”  

This report is the last in a series of briefs authored by JPI that provide a blue print for improved systems and suggest collaboration in supporting youth to ensure better public safety outcomes for the District as a whole.

“The Justice Policy Institute’s brief series explores many of the risk factors that contribute to delinquency in D.C. – poverty and lack of employment, an education system that is still failing too many of our youth, and family instability,” said R. Daniel Okonkwo, Executive Director of D.C. Lawyers for Youth, a DC-focused juvenile justice organization that works with youth courts. “When devising a comprehensive strategy for reducing delinquency and improving public safety, we cannot focus just on enforcement. We also must focus on and address these root causes.”

Fostering Change makes the following recommendations for improving the child welfare system:

1. Expand the District’s child maltreatment prevention efforts. The D.C. Government and Prevent Child Abuse America introduced the District’s first city-wide child maltreatment prevention plan in 2010. Although the city has produced a prevention plan, in 2013, budget cuts to the Children and Family Services Agency (CFSA) resulted in a reduction of prevention services funding by $1.2 million for the fiscal year. Interventions must be culturally relevant and available in the areas of the District facing concentrated disadvantage, including Wards 5, 7 and 8. Prevention services are necessary to reducing the number of children who enter care, which is an investment that will pay off in reduced foster care, criminal justice and human costs.

2. Prioritize educational support and stability. Children involved in the child welfare system, and particularly those in out-of-home placements, are at an increased risk of experiencing poor educational outcomes. Promoting school engagement among these youth has been proven to mediate the relationship between maltreatment and delinquency. The District needs to ensure that supports are put in place that maintains consistency related to educational level, peer relationships and overall stability of the child. In addition, there should also be cross-system communication and collaboration between the child welfare system and educational system. Investments in the District’s education system focused on combating low levels of educational attainment and truancy, while promoting early education, after school care and mentoring programs would further interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline and decrease justice system spending.

3. Enable access to timely, appropriate, culturally responsive and trauma- informed mental health prevention and treatment for District youth and their families. The prevalence of mental health issues in both parents and children involved in the child welfare system warrants routine and effective screening and assessments; the availability of timely, accessible and consistent evidence- based treatment services; continuity of care across all youth- serving systems; and youth-serving professionals that are informed in basic mental health science, terminology and resources. Mental health services should be located in proximity to biological and foster parent homes with hours that are accessible to working caregivers. Due to the disproportionate impact of trauma that youth in the child welfare system face, it is also imperative that all child welfare staff and service providers are able to identify traumatic experiences and trauma-related symptoms in both youth and caregivers, so they are empowered to recommend trauma resources and provide trauma-informed services.

4. Provide meaningful and sustainable employment opportunities to youth. Because of the strong interrelationship between poverty and child welfare system involvement, creating pathways to economic stability and prosperity must be created. Implementing innovative incentives to engage and sustain youth participation in employment programs, and employers willing to hire youth with previous justice system involvement, will promote positive workplace experiences, earning potential, and positive outcomes for District youth. Employment opportunities for youth transitioning into independence and adulthood are particularly meaningful for youth aging out of the foster care system.

“Reducing child welfare system involvement will require that the conditions and challenges caused by neighborhood and community poverty and disadvantage, which impede a family’s ability to ensure the safety and well-being of its children, be addressed. It is important for policymakers in D.C. to examine how the District can better serve its youth, enhance services and support for families and work to increase District wide public safety,” said report co-author Katie Ishizuka.

To read Fostering Change: How Investing In D.C.’s Child Welfare System Can Keep Kids Out of the Prison Pipeline, CLICK HERE. For additional information, please contact Adwoa Masozi at  (202) 558-7974  x306 or [email protected].

The Justice Policy Institute, based in Washington, DC, is working to reduce the use of incarceration and the justice system and promote policies that improve the well-being of all people and communities. For more JPI reports on the criminal justice system, please visit our website at www.justicepolicy.org.