How Juvenile Justice is Perpetuating Homelessness Among Youth

pexels-photo-1002053.jpegThe causes of youth being placed in juvenile detention facilities are numerous, some questionable. In fact, many of these placements could be avoided, if not prevented, if strategies and interventions are explored to make child welfare and diversion programs work.

Youth involved in the juvenile justice system often have troubled backgrounds. Some are caught in the middle of a divorce, have histories of abuse and suffer from ACEs.

Many youth are runaways. Fleeing from a myriad of types of dysfunction in the home of origin, they take to the streets. For them, it seems far more safe to be alone than remain at hme with family.

Once out of the home and experiencing homelessness, the fortunate ones are those who are allowed to stay with friends. For others, it is a night here, and a night there-no stability.

The lack of stability influences their schoool attendance, medical care, and mental and physical hygiene suffers. Homeless youth begin to do things that are illegal, unhealthy, and all or most behaviors are because they are hungry, have substance use issues, mental health disorders[usually undiagnosed] and basic survival.

man person school head

1.4 million boys and girls enter the juvenile justice system each year in the country. 71,000 enter detention, locked facilities where they’re held for hours, days, months and for som, years or until they age out

On any given day, nearly 53,000 youth are held in facilities away from home as a result of juvenile or criminal justice involvement. Just about 80% of girls and young women who enter the juvenile justice system, arrested, ranging from 11 to 18, have experienced physical and/or sexual abuse.

For female offenders, there is a phenomenon called, the sexual abuse to prison pipeline. Some data states that teen girls who are victims of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse make up almost 90% of those in detention. Many of these girls come from domestic scenes of physical and emotional neglect; health statistics reveal large percentages of girls who enter the detention system are in need of eyeglasses, are currently pregnant or have been pregnant, and up to 41% bear physical marks of sexual abuse.

Ironically, entering the juvenile detention system is one of the few opportunities many of these young women are granted access to healthcare. They are entering detention with preexisting health issues are more likely to reoffend and return to the juvenile justice system.

What we fail to consider is the predicating factors leading to detention in the first place. The report,  “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story”testifies to the high rates of sexual abuse. Compared to 7% of boys in detention who have been sexually abused, 31% of girls have that history.pexels-photo-858484.jpeg

The juvenile justice system was established in the United States about 100 years ago with the goal of diverting youthful offenders from the destructive punishments of criminal courts and encouraging rehabilitation based on the individual juvenile‘s needs.

Incidentally, the purpose of the penal system, adult or juvenile, is to rehabilitate. Offenders are supposed to be prepared to return to society as productive citizens, never to re-offend. For growing adolescents, this rehabilitation is of paramount importance to their future success as children, students, and young adults.

Unfortunately, for the time spent in detention, juvenile prison, most experience trauma, are subjected to violence and will be more likely to re-offend, both while incarcerated and after returning to their communities.

Upon release, where are their families? Where do they go from jail? Youth leave these facilities with a stigma on their records and their character. Sadly, while in the system, any mental health needs are not adequately addressed, and educational needs aren’t primary concerns of the system or the facilities themselves, although mandated.

Many are released without guidance from adults in a ‘safe’ or ‘loving and stable’ home environment. Do we honestly expect youth to return to the real or perceived abusive, unstable environment from which they fled or rebelled? What happens when the family is or becomes homeless while youth are in detention?

Who is there to take them in after ‘child prison’? They  return with scars, physical, and psychological. They are maturing, changing, and continue to develop while incarcerated. Returning stigmatized, traumatized, feared and ridiculed. And they are confused and more vulnerable than ever.  They return angry, ashamed and lonely. Fight or flight takes over.

No longer considered ‘good’ kids, they may withdraw, become bullies, fall into gang activity, and return to criminal behaviors. As would you or I, they are left to flee into a life of homelessness, become transients and have to re-offend on a daily basis to survive…..until they are apprehended.

Upon release from detention, where do they go and who’s tracking them? How long are children who are released before 18 years of age being monitored? Most of all, what about those youth over the age of 18?

They leave unsupervised, unguided, unprotected and end up alone, on their own. A new life as homeless young people begins.

Aftercare must integrate cross systems referral services and housing assistance, job preparation, school completion.  Follow-up needs to be implemented with weekly or monthly check-in[progress updates] and supportive referral services should be in place before release and cases are closed.

We shouldn’t take it for granted that youth are returning to loving and stable and safe home environments. Nor should we assume youth have been given the tools and skills for navigating life on the ‘outside’. Institutionalized thinking begins with juvenile detention, if not that first arrest or detention at school.

photo of family on seashore

Parents and adult caregivers need be a part of the treatment and aftercare/post-detention transition. If certain services are assessed as needed for their child’s well-being, then these services should be in place. What happens all too often is that the system fails to be comprehensive in service delivery and family assessment. This pushes youth to escape unhealthy home environments, if they return ‘home’ at all.

No one chooses homelessness, but without comprehensive planning of service access and delivery, we leave children vulnerable to homelessness. What’s the answer? Do we continue to arrest juvenile offenders and separate them from their families, or endeavor to better support families, targeting the most at-risk, and their children to proactively prevent any immediate need for juvenile detention?

Today’s detained children become tomorrow’s homeless youth! Prioritize prevention!



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