Academic journal article The Future of Children

Can Foster Care Interventions Diminish Justice System Inequality?

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Can Foster Care Interventions Diminish Justice System Inequality?

Article excerpt

Child maltreatment--encompassing physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, as well as neglect--is common, unequally distributed, and has lifelong negative consequences, making it one of the most pressing problems society faces. (1) The state, therefore, has practical and ethical obligations to prevent it. The most extreme state intervention involves removing children from their parents' homes and placing them in foster care. Considerable research, much of which we review below, shows that foster care placement is common, that it's disproportionately experienced by minority children, and that children who are touched by the system have a higher risk of contact with the criminal justice system. (2) Because of these characteristics, the foster care system has the potential to profoundly affect justice system inequality.

On the one hand, if foster care placement does increase the risk of criminal justice contact, as some research suggests, then it might exacerbate justice system inequality. (3) Yet even if it had no effect on the risk of criminal justice contact, the foster care system could do harm by maintaining existing levels of inequality. If improvements to the foster care system could reduce that risk, however, then foster care could decrease justice system inequality--perhaps profoundly so--by diminishing criminal justice contact among a high-risk and disproportionately African American group of children. But as other reviews on foster care have noted, scholars who study inequality have yet to fully explore the interaction between the foster care and criminal justice systems, the implications of this linkage for criminal justice inequality or the linkage's potential to diminish inequality in justice system contact. (4)

This article is the most comprehensive review to date on how foster care placement can affect children's risk of criminal justice contact. We examine the link between foster care and criminal justice and, more broadly, we explore how foster care placement affects children in a range of areas as they transition to adulthood. We focus on two sets of strategies: first, during placement, and second, after children age out of the system--that is, after they reach the age when they're no longer eligible to stay in foster care or receive attendant services. The first set of strategies is intended to diminish criminal justice system contact among children who are currently in foster care, using existing and potential resources within the infrastructure of the child welfare system. The second targets young people on the cusp of aging out of foster care, with emphasis on increasing the age at which children must leave the system.

Before proceeding, it's important to note that neither of these stages precedes removal from the home. Although we also need strategies to reduce maltreatment in the home and to support the safe preservation of families after it occurs, they fall outside the scope of this article.

Why Reducing Justice System Inequality Is Important

Criminal justice contact is ubiquitous. One recent study estimates that up to 40.3 percent of young adults have been arrested for something more serious than a traffic offense. (5) It is also, to a high degree, unequally distributed. Disparities are especially large in terms of imprisonment. One in five African American men but only about one in 33 white men experience imprisonment by their early 30s. (6) Criminal justice contact is so pervasive for African Americans that scholars have begun to consider arrest, incarceration, and other justice involvement as de facto stages of the transition to adulthood for African American youth. (7)

These inequalities are all the more troubling because the consequences of criminal justice contact extend beyond the apprehended individuals themselves. Criminal justice contact shapes the wellbeing of families and neighborhoods as well as the lived realities of entire demographic groups. …

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