Shutting Down the Trauma to Prison Pipeline

July 2018

The number of Massachusetts children removed from their homes because of allegations of abuse or neglect has increased dramatically. In 2014, Massachusetts reported the highest rate of abused children in the country, about 22.8 cases of victimization per 1,000 children, and that rate was nearly matched in 2015. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of Care and Protection court cases filed statewide increased by 56%. Some counties experienced much higher rates of child welfare cases than the state as a whole.

Since entering the foster care system increases a child’s risk for eventual involvement with the juvenile justice system as well as other negative outcomes, Citizens for Juvenile Justice (CfJJ) is gravely concerned about this trend. CfJJ’s 2015 report, Missed Opportunities, found that children who were dually involved in both DCF and DYS had early involvement with DCF and a high number of foster care placements.

The number of 6- to 11- year-old children in placement has increased 13% since 2015, with particular impact on certain Massachusetts counties. Research shows that starting at age 12 untreated symptoms of complex trauma experienced during childhood can become acute with the onset of puberty, and trauma during childhood can become aggressive and/or delinquent during adolescence and lead juvenile justice system involvement.

Children involved in the child welfare system have experienced trauma that affects brain development and can lead to behaviors as they get older that are punished in school, and eventually by law enforcement. Behavior related to trauma during childhood — particularly on the ability to regulate emotions and behavior — must be distinguished from other mental health needs and from delinquent behavior.

The children are spending more time in out-of-home placement with an associated instability in their living situations. Instability in home placements disrupts attachments essential for attachment and brain development, compounding behavioral difficulties.

Many children in Massachusetts, including those in DCF care, are unable to access culturally competent mental and behavioral health care before their behavioral health deteriorates significantly. While great strides have been made to increase access to community based mental health services for children in Massachusetts, the need is greater, particularly in certain counties and within certain communities, than the supply of clinicians who are culturally competent and trained in the area of treating children exposed to and experiencing multiple traumas.

The number of Latinx children in out of home placement has increased every year and at a higher rate than for children of other races. From 2015 to 2018, Latinx children accounted for 82% of the increase in out-of-home removals. The impact on the Latino community in Massachusetts is part of a larger picture of disproportionate numbers of Latino youth and adults in the juvenile and criminal justice system.

Report Recommendations

  • Expand culturally competent behavioral health services, and add more non-English speaking child clinicians, to overcome wait lists and barriers to access.
  • Invest in promising practices and program models to prevent child removal and safely promote family stabilization and focus early on building a child’s resilience and positive youth development.
  • Hold all state employees involved in child welfare accountable for promoting stability in placements
  • DCF must re-examine its newly redrafted policy increasing barriers for family members to serve as kinship placements.
  • Improve the scope and transparency of data collection and analysis on children with Care and Protection and CRA cases.

For a PDF copy of the report, please click HERE.

For a PDF copy of the executive summary of the report, please click HERE.

A summary of CfJJ's forum presenting on the findings of this report, including video, is available HERE.

Additional Resources:

This report was released on July 17, 2018 at Citizens for Juvenile Justice's Behavioral Health Support for DCF-Involved Youth to Prevent Acute Interventions forum.

This research was funded by the John W. Alden Trust. We thank them for their support but acknowledge that the findings and conclusions presented in this report are those of Citizens for Juvenile Justice alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Foundation.