Multi-System Youth


“Multi-System” youth are children who are involved with both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.  They may also be referred to as “Dual Status” or “Crossover” youth.  CfJJ uses the term “Multi-System Youth” in order to capture the fact that multiple systems have, or are currently, “touching” this population of young people – these systems include schools, mental health organizations, hospitals, courts, families, law enforcement, mentors, and so on.  The most common crossover pathway occurs when a child involved in, or with a history of involvement in, the child welfare system and is subsequently arrested and processed in the juvenile delinquency system. However, there are several ways in which a youth can end up involved in both.  In some cases, the delinquency occurs first, which prompts a referral to child welfare to open a new case or reopen a previously closed case. 

Across the country, children involved in the child welfare system are more likely to become juvenile justice-involved. National research shows that they're entering the juvenile justice system at a higher rate than children not involved, and that minority children are disproportionately represented in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. (Michael Nash & Shay Bilchik, Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice: Two Sides of the Same Coin (2009); Jessica Short and Christy Sharp, Disproportionate Minority Contact in the Juvenile Justice System (2005))

The situation in Massachusetts is similar. In order to better understand the risk factors for dual involvement in Massachusetts, CfJJ examined what distinguished Department of Children and Families (DCF) youth who ended up being arrested by analyzing their history of involvement with the child welfare system.  For our report, Missed Opportunities: Preventing Youth in the Child Welfare System from Entering the Juvenile Justice System, CfJJ reviewed the data of multi-system-involved youth in the Commonwealth from the years 2014-2015 and found that:

  • About 40% of the Department of Youth Services' (DYS) detention population had an open DCF case, and 72% of youth committed to DYS were involved with DCF either prior to or during their commitment.
  • The majority of multi-system youth had their first DCF intake by age 5, and nearly 40% by age 3. 
  • Nearly 50% of girls and 40% of boys had experienced multiple home removals.
  • While the median number of lifetime placements for children in DCF care is three, most youth in our study had far more. For girls, 40% experienced more than six placements, and 15% had eleven or more.  One young man had 37 different placements over his lifetime in care.

National research points to significant risk factors for “crossing over:" multiple child welfare placements, being a minority, age of removals, and type of placements. (Learn more: Center for Juvenile Justice's Crossover Youth Practice Model; Joseph Ryan, Mark Testa, & Fuhua Zhai, African American Males in Foster Care and the Risk of Delinquency: The Value of Social Bonds and Permanence (2008); Meghan Williams & Jennifer Price, The Link: Connecting Juvenile Justice & Child Welfare (2009).) 

Crossover youth among the most vulnerable in our state. They are more likely than youth in the general population or the overall child welfare population to suffer from mental health and substance abuse issues, and they disproportionately experience difficulties learning or engaging in school. CfJJ is committed to working with all agencies and allies to help prevent children involved with DCF from becoming involved in the juvenile justice system and to divert, protect and help them if they do face arrest.