Reducing Delinquency Among African American Youth In Foster Care 

Published by Abigail Williams-Butler

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

These findings are described in the article entitled Reducing delinquency among African American youth in foster care: Does gender make a difference in crossover prevention?, recently published in the journal Children and Youth Services Review (Children and Youth Services Review 94 (2018) 563-571). This work was conducted by Abigail Williams-Butler from Rutgers.

In my recent study entitled, “Reducing delinquency among African American youth in foster care: Does gender make a difference in crossover prevention,” published in the journal Children and Youth Services Review, I use an interdisciplinary lens to address an issue of timely importance. I discuss how resilience theory can be applied to the foster care system to identify promotive factors that may later reduce the likelihood of youth engaging in delinquent acts. This issue is important as intervention development may be informed and policy changes made to improve the developmental outcomes of this at-risk group to reduce their likelihood of engaging in delinquency. 

This issue is important as children and youth in the foster care system are more likely to go on to commit delinquent acts and be involved in the juvenile justice system. This is especially the case for African American youth who are overrepresented at every level of the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. In thinking about what works to aid African American youth in the foster care system to stop their trajectory into delinquency, it is important to contextualize their experiences – meaning identifying what factors may have contributed to these youth becoming involved in the foster care system in the first place. Later, I will review the findings of my study which identifies factors that may aid African American youth in discontinuing their trajectory into delinquency.

There are traditionally two perspectives within the child welfare literature regarding why African American children and youth are overrepresented in the child welfare system. One perspective that is supported by Dorothy Roberts (2002) is that child welfare services primarily punish Black families in poverty through discrimination and bias rather than addressing the disproportionate amount of poverty among these families. Due to racial inequities, Black children are overrepresented in the child welfare system.

Conversely, Elizabeth Bartholett (2009) argues that there is no evidence that child welfare decision making is systematically biased against Black children. Rather, Black children are more likely to be represented in groups that are at high risk for maltreatment and disproportionately face extreme poverty, unemployment, substance abuse problems, and mental health problems as a result. Given Black families overrepresented status in these groups, the child welfare system is working exactly as it was intended to if Black children are overrepresented. 

In thinking about disproportionality from a child development standpoint, I argue that it is likely a little of both perspectives which explains why Black children and youth are consistently overrepresented in the child welfare system. In examining the social context of the individual, it becomes clearer how the child welfare system interacts with the individual.

For African Americans in the United States, structural racism and discrimination are nearly inescapable. The result is that structural racism and discrimination is then correlated with poverty. Poverty is then correlated with social ills such as parental substance abuse, parental mental illness, domestic violence, and parental incarceration. These social ills are then correlated with an increase in child welfare involvement for African American children. In examining the arguments of both Bartholett and Roberts, both are right. It is the examination of the problem through the lens of the individual, rather than the system, that allows this viewpoint to be taken. 

Further, not only race but also gender makes a difference when examining the trajectory of the individual through these systems. Males and females engage in delinquent acts differently and come to into contact with the justice system traditionally through different types of delinquent acts. Therefore, it is no surprise that gender would also play a role in determining not only who has contact with the system, but also what helps determine the mechanisms for how youth avoid future delinquent acts.

Without identifying the strengths of these youth, the narrative will continue to focus on risks regarding this population. Examining the risk factors that may explain why African American youth in foster care go on into delinquency is well established in the literature. However, it is important to identify the role that both race and gender play in supporting what works in reducing the likelihood of delinquent acts among African American youth in foster care. As the resilience literature has shown, there is value in understanding how youth are able to avoid their expected outcome and preserver despite high levels of risk. It is less established in the literature how youth can use their assets, or promotive factors, to have a positive outcome, despite their likelihood of risk. 

In my study, I found promotive factors at multiple levels do matter. Promotive factors at the individual, caregiver, and foster care system levels do predict which African American youth are less likely to later engage in delinquent acts. Counterintuitively, one of these factors predicted higher levels of delinquency. Among all youth, age and time in care were important for reducing the risk of delinquency. Counterintuitively, social relationships were associated with an increased risk of delinquency. I also found that gender did make a difference in predicting which factors made the most difference in predicting less delinquency. School achievement, caregiver resources, and time in care were more influential for African American males and age was more influential for African American females. 

Highlighting the counterintuitive finding, those with more social relationships were found to have higher levels of delinquency. In looking at the child welfare literature alone, this finding may appear to be contradictory as social relationships are often seen as a deterrent to crime. However, in examining the criminology literature, differential association theory may explain these results as delinquency may be a way for youth to gain acceptance with friends and maintain social ties. Delinquency in this way may be seen as a means of creating or maintaining a social connection, rather than solely an act of crime.

There is other support in the literature that shows among at-risk youth that having few or no friends is seen as a promotive factor, which supports the previous finding that having more social relationships among at-risk youth may lead to more delinquent acts. In examining this counterintuitive finding, the important point to take away is that social relationships can be multidimensional – meaning it is not always possible to distinguish between those social bonds that have a positive influence versus those that have a negative influence. All social relationships are not positive and in some instances, certain social relationships can be detrimental. Certain social relationships may contain dimensions that are both positive and negative. The multidimensionality of social relationships must be taken into account. 

Regarding the findings related to gender, males had significantly more promotive factors compared to females. For males, school achievement, caregiver resources, and a longer time in care were more significant compared with only age for females. These findings support the work of intersectionality taken by Patricia Hill Collins (2009) and Seaton and Tyson (2018) that African American females, in fact, face greater challenges in society due to their disadvantaged status regarding both race and gender. 

These findings are important because they take race, gender, social relationships, as well as other promotive factors into account all with the goal of identifying what works in reducing delinquency among at-risk African American youth. These findings can be used to inform intervention development and policy changes that improve the circumstances for this overrepresented and particularly vulnerable population. Applying resilience theory to the practical contexts of the child welfare and juvenile justice system is one manner in which an interdisciplinary approach can be used to benefit one of the most vulnerable groups in today’s society. 

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