There is an assortment of ways that the youth can be pushed into juvenile and adult justice systems. Many factors may contribute to the reason why the youth eventually end up in prison. These factors include, but are not limited to, school systems and the child welfare system. In this paper, I will be focusing on the foster care system. The foster care system is broken in many ways and children can endure serious harm as a result. I will address how the foster care-to-prison pipeline operates in the United States. I will define what the foster-care-to prison pipeline is and will address who is affected by it. There are many young people in America’s foster care system that run a large risk of being imprisoned.
For this paper, I have chosen to look at specific identities that are most at risk to be affected by the foster-care-to prison pipeline. The groups I will be focusing on are youth of color, LGBTQ+ identified youth and young people who have mental illnesses. These communities are already more likely to be placed into the foster care system which means that they are also more likely to be in the justice systems at one point or another in their lives. I will cover the challenges that these youth face in the foster care system as well as in the justice systems and the negative consequences of being incarcerated as a juvenile.
I will begin by reviewing literature that I have compiled that addresses each of the identities that are more likely to be affected by the foster-care-to prison pipeline and what challenges they face. I will conclude my paper by addressing the implications of my findings and the ways that the foster care system in America can be improved upon to prevent these juveniles from being imprisoned.
Foster Care System in the United States
The foster care system in the United States is a temporary living arrangement where minors are placed into homes of a “foster parent” or other family members who is approved by the state. According to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) report provided by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the number of youth that are in foster care has continued to increase in numbers with 400,394 minors in the system in 2013, 414,129 in 2014, 427,328 in 2015, 436,551 in 2016 and 442,995 in 2017. The median age of a minor in the system as of September 30, 2017, was 7.7 years of age. The median time in care was 12.9 months. The race/ethnicities that made up this system as of 2017 were 44% of the youth being White, 23% is Black or African American, 21% being Hispanic (of any race) and every other race was 7% or less. The youth that exited foster care as of 2017 was made up of 46% White, 21% Black or African American, and 21% Hispanic (of any race) while all other races were 7% or less.
Many youths in the foster care system face challenges such as mental health issues and behavioral and developmental issues. If needs are not unaddressed while these youth are in placement, many negative long-term outcomes could be the result. An article from Current Problems in Pediatric and Adolescent Health Care states that “both nature, genetic loading associated with parental impairment, and nurture (abandonment, parental rejection, early adversity, and resultant trauma) contribute to the high prevalence of mental health and developmental diagnoses in this population.” Some of the developmental issues that foster care youth face include cognitive impairment, social-emotional issues, language, and social communication impairment and gross and fine motor deficits. Essential health services that these youth may need, go unmet, or are not provided in a timely manner.
According to Rachel Anspach, foster care youth face a disproportionate risk of being incarcerated. Aspach states, “The problem is so severe that one-quarter of foster care alumni will become involved with the criminal justice system within two years of leaving care.” The foster care-to-prison pipeline describes what practices and policies move foster care youth from the child welfare system to the criminal justice system. This pipeline especially affects youth of color, LGBTQ-identified youth, and young people with mental illnesses. Anspach says that these are groups of youth who, “are already more likely to be in foster care and thus even more likely to be pushed into the justice systems. The discrimination in the system exacerbates these populations’ already disproportionate vulnerabilities to criminalization.” I will now go into detail about how these three groups are likely to be affected by the foster-care-to-prison pipeline.
Youth of Color
Youth of color often face more hardship in the foster care system compared to the youth who identify as white. National and local data show that youth of color experience longer stays in foster care than their white counterparts, more restrictive foster care placements, and lack of access to meaningful and relevant services, among other poor outcomes (Raimon & Weber, 2015). The United States foster care system oftentimes fails to understand and respond to the life experiences of youth of color, including race, racism, and culture. Black foster youth are some of the most vulnerable and oppressed populations. There are many systematic barriers that youth of color face in the foster care system. Many of the current policies and procedures that are in place for child welfare systems disadvantage people of color. An example of this would be that in order for a relative to become a caregiver, they have to complete and pass a criminal background check. Many of these children have relatives who have criminal records due to drug or property-related drug charges that prevent them from being chosen as caregivers. Even though these communities face excessive policing, that factor will not be considered. Other relatives may be undocumented and although they may have been the previous caretaker and are able to provide a safe place for the child, they will not be chosen.
Black children are more likely than white kids to be placed in foster care. Black kids are already subject to disproportionate rates of school discipline and criminalization, being a foster youth compound this risk. Foster youth, particularly girls, are targeted by sex traffickers, and the criminalization of sex work can funnel these victims of modern-day slavery into the criminal justice system (Anspach, 2018). In an interview with Teen Vogue, Randy, a twenty-two-year-old from the Bronx who entered into foster care when he was 10, and moved through 13 placements and three boroughs of New York City while in the system and was charged with an assault. Randy said, “I feel like since I’m just a black kid in foster care [the justice system] doesn’t want to see us given opportunities or help us grow.” Randy explained that many foster care parents like his own were ready to call 911 as fast as they could when there was a small issue, rather than trying to work through and solve the problem. Randy got into a fight with another boy in the foster home, his foster care parents immediately called 911, and Randy and the other boy, neither who were seriously injured were placed into juvenile detention for 14 months. Once a youth from foster care gets involved with the juvenile justice system, there are negative outcomes on the foster youth. This reputation and label can impact their treatment and home placements for the rest of their time in the foster care system.
LGBTQ+ Identified Youth
Youth with Mental Illnesses
The brain isn’t fully developed until you reach about 25 years of age. When you are young, your brain is still in a critical growth period and is more vulnerable to trauma. Negative environment conditions such as poor nutrition, low-quality housing and physical or emotional harm a child may go through in the foster care system may lead to mental illnesses. (Deutsch, et al., 2015) found that, “Nearly two-thirds of children in foster placement have mental and behavioral health problems, and estimates of developmental disorders range from 20% to 60%.” Some of the most common health diagnoses for the youth in foster care include attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, anxiety, and depression. Anxiety symptoms (stemming from social phobia, generalized anxiety disorder, and separation anxiety disorders), disordered eating (anorexia and bulimia), enuresis, encopresis, mood disorders (major depression and mania), and disruptive behavioral symptoms are also common. In one study, adolescents involved in foster care were about four times more likely to have attempted suicide and 5 times more likely to receive a drug dependence diagnosis in the preceding 12 months (Deutsch, et al., 2015). If these mental illnesses are not properly addressed while the foster care youth are in the system, there is a high risk that these individuals could eventually be placed into the justice system. These youth may be prescribed the incorrect medications or they may not receive therapy and the trauma-informed care that is needed.
Since many foster care parents are not properly educated or trained on how to handle episodes due to trauma or emotional circumstance the child has faced, they may not handle it in a professional, respectful manner and one of their first instincts could be to call the police. It is known that group home staff call 911 for various reasons including verbal arguments, physical fights, throwing things, running away, smoking marijuana, or even masturbation (Anspach, 2018). According to the Office of Research and Public Affairs in the Treatment Advocacy Center, overall in the United States, approximately 20% of inmates in jails and 15% of inmates in state prisons are now estimated to have a serious mental illness. Foster care youth may be likely to spend time in jail or prison due to having a mental health crisis that was not properly handled by the system.