Foster Youth Unfairly Criminalized
The San Francisco Chronicle ran an article on the front page of the paper on Feb. 17, 2018 titled, “Girl’s undue jailing exemplifies plight of foster youth in custody.” The article details the story of a 14-year-old girl who ran away from a group home in San Joaquin County who police booked on five felony charges after they arrested her for vandalism at a nearby hospital. She remained jailed for weeks after her guilty plea because the foster care system could not find housing for her. This is a violation of a 2014 California law forbidding the jailing of foster youth just because child welfare cannot find a foster placement for the youth.
This story highlights the multiple problems that foster youth face as they try to navigate a system that is supposedly set up to protect them. According to a 2001 Vera Institute report foster youth are detained in juvenile justice facilities at a higher rate than non-foster youth. This is often because of a lack of communication across agencies serving foster youth and a child remaining in custody because there is no responsible adult in court to help the youth.
In 2006, the Vera Institute evaluated Project Confirm which they designed to deal with this problem in New York City. The program lowered the disparity between foster youth and non-foster youth who committed less serious crimes, but for those foster youth who committed more serious crimes Project Confirm increased the disparity. This seemed to be because the increased communication between agencies gave the court additional information on the youth, particularly their history of AWOLs from group or foster homes. A history of AWOLs encouraged courts to detain youth who committed more serious crimes.
In California, foster youth often languished in juvenile justice facilities even though the court had cleared them for release because child welfare workers could not find appropriate placements for them. In 2014, AB 2813 outlawed this practice in California.
In the case cited by the San Francisco Chronicle the juvenile facility released the 14-year-old foster youth hours after a reporter’s inquiry about the case. According to the Chronicle, “attorneys who reviewed the case said, [the youth] appeared to be releasable to Child Protective Services just days after being booked into juvenile hall.” The article also cited Ji Seon Song, a fellow and lecturer at Stanford Law School who focuses on juvenile criminal justice “The fact she stayed in because CPS couldn’t place her flies in the face of recent reforms intended to make sure that kids in the dependency system aren’t further criminalized,” Perhaps the most important issue around this case was explained by a representative of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which advocates for at-risk children and families, “If her [the youth’s] needs were met in the shelter, she might not have run away. And if she hadn’t run away, she wouldn’t have committed the crimes.”