Even More Vulnerable: How CASA Volunteers Can Advocate for Youth in Foster Care Who Become Involved with Juvenile Justice

Youth in foster care become involved with the juvenile justice system much more often than their peers, and once they do, they are at an even higher risk of negative outcomes. These youth—commonly referred to as crossover, dually-involved, dually-adjudicated, dual-system, or multi-system youth—require a unique approach.[1]

In this article, we’re diving into how CASA volunteers can best serve these youth, with diligence and compassion. We’re also covering ways CASA volunteers and others can help reduce the likelihood of youth crossing paths with the juvenile justice system in the first place.

The Scope of the Challenges

Ever heard advocates refer to the foster care-to-prison pipeline? It’s a sad and challenging fact that currently, children and youth who experience abuse or neglect are at a 47% greater risk of being involved with the juvenile justice system, compared to the general population.[2] Although prevalence is hard to quantify and dependent on the definition used for the population, it is estimated that anywhere between 45-75% of first-time juvenile petitions (criminal charges involving minors) involve dual system youth.[3] And when we look closer, girls and African-American youth are disproportionately represented among youth involved in both systems.[4]

92% of youth involved in both systems first experience foster care, and then become juvenile justice involved.[5] One reason youth in foster care are more likely to become involved with the juvenile justice system is the trauma that they have experienced, both before and during their time in foster care. Trauma often manifests itself in behavior—and behavior, like getting upset after a visit and breaking your bed in your foster home, or feeling upset at a residential treatment center staff person and threatening them, can lead to criminal charges.

Knowing this, it probably comes as no surprise that the youth most vulnerable to juvenile justice involvement are those who have been the most traumatized and have the most challenging behaviors: youth living in highly restrictive residential treatment centers. In fact, these children are 2.5 times more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system than children who are placed with foster care families.[6]

Youth in foster care who enter the juvenile system have worse outcomes than their non-foster-care peers.[7] It’s associated with higher risks for mental health, education and vocation challenges, as well as higher rates of recidivism, longer stays in detention, placement instability and poor permanency outcomes.[8]

These facts are staggering, but speak to the great need for thoughtful, fierce advocacy and support in order to prevent dual involvement in the first place.

How CASA Volunteers Can Help Prevent Dual Involvement

Prevention comes down to two major areas of focus: positive relationships and trauma education.

One of the biggest protective factors that children and youth who have experienced trauma can have is stable, supportive connections and relationships. CASA volunteers can provide a positive influence in a child’s life. They can, and should, also work hard to find and engage family members and other supportive adults for the children they serve. This is especially important to do when children are placed in residential treatment centers or other environments that are far away from their home communities and support networks.

CASA volunteers can help ensure that a child’s caregivers, teachers and therapists are familiar with their trauma history and potential trauma triggers, both to help them know how to avoid triggering the child anew, and so they approach their handling of trauma-related behaviors with compassion.

If a child or youth does engage in behavior that could lead to juvenile involvement, CASA volunteers can also work with caseworkers to discuss the possibility of the foster placement not calling law enforcement or pressing charges against the child. This might be an option in many cases. If caregivers, staff and the child all feel supported by the rest of the child’s team, those relationships can go a long way in preventing the involvement of the juvenile justice system in the child’s life.

To help with this on the state level, Texas CASA is working with other child welfare advocacy groups on legislation that would create a diversion program to help keep children and youth who are placed in residential treatment centers out of the juvenile system. The bill would direct juvenile boards to create policies that would allow youth to participate in services or informal probation, designed to help them work on their behavior and prevent future incidents. If the child or youth successfully completes the services or probation, the charges against them would be dismissed. To learn more about this idea and other child welfare legislation, check out our 87th Session Bill Tracker or email our Public Policy team at publicpolicy@texascasa.org.

Advocating for Youth Who Are Dually Involved

While prevention is key, it’s equally important that CASA program staff and volunteers are prepared to advocate for youth who do end up entering the juvenile justice system.

The Texas Supreme Court Children’s Commission spearheaded the Dual Status Task Force in July 2019. The Task Force identified judicial practices as a key focus area, along with standardizing definitions, legal representation, training, agency coordination and data. Texas CASA has served on the Task Force and its subcommittees from the beginning, and is excited about the focus on improving outcomes for youth in both systems. We’ve summarized some of the Task Force’s recommendations specific to CASA volunteer training and support below.

Task Force Recommendations for Preparing CASA Volunteers for Dual System Appointments:

  • Advocates should receive training on the tools available and necessary to respond when a youth becomes involved in both systems.
  • Advocates must understand and clearly explain to the youth the importance of confidentiality, and what information the advocate can and cannot share with others.
  • For sibling groups, it is best practice to appoint more than one Guardian ad Litem if there is a conflict of interest due to a pending juvenile case.
  • Advocates should be trained on both systems and how they intersect before accepting dual system appointments.
  • Advocates should be trained on the importance of record sealing and record sealing requirements for multi-county records for dual status youth before accepting dual system appointments.
  • Guardians ad Litem should encourage best practices for serving youth that include family engagement, collaboration and communication, including the use of Collaborative Family Engagement.

In addition, Texas CASA is working on potential legislation to clarify the role of Guardian ad Litem in dual status cases so that CASA volunteers can participate in juvenile court hearings, report to the judge and represent the youth’s best interest in all aspects of the dual status case. Texas CASA is also working to develop training for volunteers and staff who are assigned to these cases.

Conclusion: What Can CASA Volunteers Do?

Just like in every case, CASA volunteers play a critical role. They can help to keep children out of the juvenile system and, for those who do become involved, CASA volunteers can help to ensure that the youth’s services are focused on healing, compassion and rehabilitation.

It is important for CASA volunteers to advocate on children’s behalf in the juvenile justice system as well as the child welfare system. CASA volunteers should never investigate criminal charges or discuss the specifics of criminal charges with the youth they work with before the youth is adjudicated. However, after a judge decides if a youth is guilty or not, CASA volunteers can play an important role in advocating for the best placement and services for the youth during the disposition hearing.

CASA volunteers can act as a bridge between systems to support the kind of coordinated, trauma-informed, rehabilitating and healing approach to services that every child deserves. CASA volunteers can get access to necessary information about the juvenile case from caseworkers and can submit information to the judge in the juvenile case with recommendations related to the youth’s best interest.

These children and youth need a fierce advocate who can speak up for them, take a compassionate approach, raise questions about services that seem duplicative and build relationships with juvenile judges, attorneys and probation officers. These relationships are important to establish to ensure that everyone has a clear picture of the needs and strengths that a child has and to make sure their services support those individual needs and strengths.

Every child and youth deserves the chance to heal and live a happy life. With a dedicated CASA volunteer who is invested in their well-being, children and youth who are in both the foster care and juvenile justice systems can get the services and support they need to thrive and be successful.


[1] Available online at https://caseyfamilypro-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/media/SComm_Crossover-youth-practice-model.pdf.

[2] Ryan, J. P., & Testa, M. F. (2005). Child maltreatment and juvenile delinquency: Investigating the role of placement and placement instability. Children and Youth Services Review, 27(3), 227–249.

[3] Herz, D. Dierkhising, C. (2019) OJJDP Dual System Youth Design Study: Summary of Findings and Recommendations for Pursuing a National Estimate of Dual System Youth.

[4] Haight, W., Bidwell, L., Choi, W.S., & Cho, M. (2016). An evaluation of the Crossover Youth Practice Model (CYPM): Recidivism outcomes for maltreated youth involved in the juvenile justice system. Children and Youth Services Review, 6, 578-85.

[5] Huang, H., Ryan, J. P., & Herz, D. (2012). The journey of dually-involved youth: The description and prediction of rereporting and recidivism. Children and Youth Services Review, 34(1), 254–260.

[6] Texas Judicial Council, Committee Report and Recommendations: Juvenile Justice (2018), available at https://www.txcourts.gov/media/1441880/juvenile-justice-committee-report.pdf.

[7] 7Nat’l Ctr. for Juv. Justice, When Systems Collaborate: How Three Jurisdictions Improved their Handling of Dual-Status Cases 2015, available at http://www.ncjj.org/pdf/Juvenile%20Justice%20Geography,%20Policy,%20Practice%20and%20Statistics%202015/WhenSystemsCollaborateJJGPSCaseStudyFinal042015.pdf.

[8] Caietti, C.M., Gaines, K., & Heldman, J. (2017). “Improving outcomes for dual status youth,” presented at the Beyond the Bench Conference, December 19, 2017. Available online at http://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/BTB24-2G-00PPT.pdf.