Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice in the USA: A Practice Perspective


Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice in the USA: A Practice Perspective

Mark Creekmore

Introduction: practice and policy in child welfare and juvenile justice

This chapter focuses on issues that arise in separating child welfare from juvenile justice functions in the USA. I will examine policy and practice developments and the interface between the two. Policy and practice are related though distinct systems of codifying organisational activities. Usually formal policies do not translate directly into practice, but form one among several sets of influences involved in ‘doing the work’. Practice is routine, purposeful activity involving typologies about cases, which may concern individuals, families or members of communities. Cases having a consistent set of characteristics are the essential units of practice. For example, practices that work with children who have mental health problems are different from practices that work with children who are drug abusing. Practices involve ideals (norms), some of which are embodied in laws. General norms such as confidentiality and client participation in decisions apply to all cases. More local community and organisational norms also affect how certain cases should be handled. For example, community norms about how developmentally disabled youth should be dealt with are different from those concerning delinquency. Finally, practices also rely on bodies of knowledge and methods of knowing (epistemologies), and the sources and types of this knowledge also vary by the types of cases. Here, traditional ‘practice wisdom’ still has an important place alongside current emphasis on ‘evidence-based practices’.

The relationships between practice and policy are complex. Practice knowledge is usually more emergent, amorphous and flexible than policies, which are usually codified in writing. Policies are derived from various sources, including laws, government reports and agency procedures. In the USA, both laws and public agency rules are stratified further by levels of federal, state and local government. Policies affect worker activities through varied routes (e.g. procedures, training, staff recruitment). Their application depends on how individuals interpret them in the light of organisational and community norms.

Policies may fail or fall into disuse if they conflict with important, established practices. Barton and Creekmore (1994) documented the failed policy that applied risk assessment tools to dispositional decisions in New Hampshire. Case practices are more flexible than policies. Based on professional norms and bodies of knowledge, practices develop strategies that apply policies to complex cases. For example, practitioners make choices about which policy to apply; they may ignore or work around the policy by partial compliance; and they may attempt to resolve problems that sometimes follow from competing or inflexible policies and procedures.

The next part of this chapter examines the history concerning the separation of child welfare and juvenile justice. At some times policies have followed or merely codified practice; at others, they have led practice. After that, consideration is given to the present organisational and social contexts that coincide with the separation of child welfare and juvenile justice. Finally examples are given of practices that ‘work around’ policies dividing child welfare and juvenile justice, and of experiments that unify child welfare and juvenile justice practices.

The historical context of service practice for youth and families

This brief history will show that most of the fundamental strains among current practices and policies were present from the start and have stubbornly avoided systematic solution. They include differing definitions of childhood, the identification of perpetrators and victims, and the appropriate roles for individual, family and community responsibility.

Table 3.1 summarises in parallel columns the trends in child welfare (based on the works of Gordon (2002) and Schene (1998)) and the trends in juvenile justice (Krisberg and Austin 1993).

Table 3.1: Historical summary of child welfare and juvenile justice

Child welfare Juvenile justice
1875–1890: Child Savers. Children’s Aid Society, settlement houses, public schools. Practice focused on child abuse. 1850–1890: Child Savers. New York Juvenile Asylum. Practice focused on institutionalisation.
1880–1920: Progressive Era. Regulation of institutions, child labour laws, (state) mothers’ pension laws, compulsory school attendance. Practice focused on neglect. Juvenile Court: youth segregated by age. 1880–1920: Progressive Era. Juvenile court: youth segregated by age.
1907–1940s: Child Guidance Clinic Movement. Practice focused on psychological evaluation and counselling.
1930–1940: Depression Era Practice focused on economic stress. 1930s–1950s: Chicago Area Project. Psychological counselling, Youth Authority model. Practice focused on community (dis)organisation.
Second World War and 1950s: Practice focused on neurotic complexes and individual adaptation. 1950s and 1960s: Mobilisation for Youth, Youth Service Bureaus. Practice focused on prevention and community intervention.
1960s and 1970s: Practice focused on child abuse, mandatory reporting, family preservation, specialised foster care (Indian Child Welfare Act). 1970s: Institutional change and Gault decision. Practice focused on centralised state services through youth authorities and creation of community-based corrections.
1980s–1990s: Numerous and shifting policies. Practice focused on ‘reasonable efforts’ (Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act); on termination of parental rights and adoption (and against cross-racial placements and adoptions (Adoption and Safe Families Act); on prevention and early intervention (Wraparound and Family Group Decision Making). 1980s–1990s: Practice focused on violent crime and gang activity through transfer and direct file to adult courts; on balanced and restorative justice; on community development; on speciality dockets (e.g. drug courts, truancy courts).

Child welfare and juvenile justice practices had common beginnings in the immigration and urban poverty prior to the US Civil War (Bernard 1992, p.58). During the era of the Child Savers (dated between 1850 and 1890) juvenile justice reformers criticised the work of established social institutions like churches. Juvenile justice focused on social control using institutional ‘asylums’ that separated children from adults, removed them from urban environments and attempted to inculcate values and habits, especially about work. Child welfare, however, focused on family strategies such as home placement. This meant the removal of some children from urban poverty to rural homes, but settlement houses provided less disruptive and more integrative educational and community strategies.

From 1880 to 1920, the so-called Progressive Era, formal policies increasingly differentiated child welfare and juvenile justice. The juvenile court began in 1899 in Illinois and, by 1925, all but two states had legislation to create juvenile courts. The primary focus of juvenile courts was delinquency, but at first they also dealt with some children who were neglected. Whenever possible these were kept with their own families or referred to probation officers. Later legislation for juvenile courts formally separated the delinquent from the dependent and neglect cases by limiting the definition of criminal intent by age. Separate institutions were established to rehabilitate young offenders, and children under 12 years were no longer admitted to reform schools.

One far-reaching effect of the juvenile court was to deal with social problems on a ‘case-by-case basis, rather than through broad-based efforts to redistribute wealth and power throughout the society’ (Krisberg and Austin 1993, p.31). This reinforced a shift in practice towards a focus on individual change, contrasting with the community development strategies of the settlement house movement. This realignment was supported by class-based, community norms about individual responsibility, which are still very strong in the practice of juvenile justice. In juvenile justice the emphasis was placed on ‘treating’ individual problems leading to delinquency via the child guidance clinic movement.

Child welfare policies during the Progressive Era focused on child neglect, pension laws and ways to keep children out of exploitative labour markets. Services became more formalised and practice more professionalised, drawing on new systematic research about children. Regulatory laws introduced inspections of welfare agencies (O’Connor 2001, p.297).

During the Depression, the Second World War and the 1950s, juvenile justice and child welfare practices and procedures continued to develop ‘out of phase’. By the late 1960s, however, the disaffection with existing institutional practices of both child welfare and juvenile justice became more focused and intense. The concern expressed in the Gault decision (see Chapter 12) was widespread: that children (and others) were being harmed by service systems that were large, non-reflective and unchallenged. Such concerns led to greater specialisation of both decision-making and services. Child welfare became dominated by responses to child abuse. In 1974 the federal government provided model legislation for states to develop mandatory reporting laws and create child protective services. Referrals for child protection escalated (Waldfogel 1998). The use of out-of-home care grew, but stays in foster care were criticised for being long and sometimes destructive. In reaction, in 1980 new legislation encouraged ‘reasonable efforts’ via family services to keep children with their parents or return them home quickly. In juvenile justice during that same period alternatives to institutional treatment were being developed, and diversion of non-serious and status offences was encouraged (Krisberg and Austin 1993, p.48). Starting in the mid-1970s more juvenile cases were transferred to adult courts, and juvenile sentences (called dispositions) emphasised punishment (‘accountability’) instead of treatment. For some cases the juvenile court became more similar to the adult criminal court. The role of the prosecuting attorney expanded to the point that prosecutors reviewed intake decisions, as in adult courts. Judicial autonomy was also reduced through sentencing guidelines. The number of youths in adult correctional facilities grew. These changes were influenced by three trends: the reduction (in age) of the ‘threshold of adolescence’; increased due process as a result of Supreme Court decisions like Gault; and public anxiety about the increase in serious and violent juvenile crime (Fagan 1995, pp.241–243).

The divergence of child welfare and juvenile justice has been accompanied by variation in policies that is structured by American federalism. Responsibility for child welfare and juvenile justice policies is divided among counties, states and the federal government. Furthermore, county juvenile courts and public social service agencies within each state can pursue different policies and priorities. Laws governing child and family services in the USA are still the responsibility of states, although some uniformity has occurred through imitation. Largely in the wake of the civil rights movement, the federal government has been more active as a policy leader using both legislation and financial incentives to encourage states to follow its objectives (Mechanic and Rochefort 1990, p.304).

Current conditions for child welfare and juvenile justice practice

The history of family services shows that child welfare and juvenile justice diverged early and followed separate paths. Current social and organisational conditions, especially among line workers, also affect the separation and conduct of child welfare and juvenile justice.

Child welfare workers are usually young women with college (bachelor) degrees, frequently in a first job, the pay being markedly below salaries for nurses, teachers, police and firefighters. Some work under the auspices of private, not-for-profit agencies, but most are located in large state agencies equivalent to departments of social service. Some child welfare functions are shared between state and county agencies (American Public Human Services Association 2005).

The primary functions of child welfare agencies are to investigate allegations and process complaints about child abuse (Child Protection Services), offer family support (home protection) and provide fostering and adoption services (Littell and Schuerman 1994). Following their investigations, CPS workers may refer cases to the criminal court for the prosecution of parents for neglect or abuse, and to the juvenile court for a decision on whether to remove a child. Juvenile courts also review placements to ensure that a permanency plan is developed and followed. Once a child is removed, other child welfare workers may place the child in foster care and supervise the placement, the adoption or the return home (Schene 1998).

Most child welfare workers handle complex, demanding caseloads within a high-pressure organisational setting (Tittle 2002). Workers perceive a daunting set of problems in carrying out their roles: imbalance of job demands relative to remuneration; starting salaries relative to other positions; other, better job alternatives; budget constraints (not related to hiring); hiring freezes (restrictions); negative media reports (American Public Human Services Association 2005, pp.5–6; also Gunderson and Osborne 2001). ‘Child protective staff fear errors, especially the failure to take endangered children into care, and the subsequent public response to deaths or severe abuse and neglect’ (Kamerman and Kahn 1990). Furthermore, when a judge’s order is not carried out, the judge may order the child welfare agency to a formal hearing to ‘show cause’ why they should not be held in contempt of court, threatening workers and supervisors with jail for non-compliance. Not surprisingly, then, the yearly turnover of front-line workers is high (Hochman, Hochman and Miller 2003).

Conditions for caseload practices for juvenile justice in the USA

The profiles of juvenile justice workers and their practices differ from those of child welfare workers in several respects. Juvenile probation officers are usually college-educated white males, 30–49 years old, with five to ten years’ experience in the field. Typically they earn much more than their counterparts in child welfare (Torbet 1996). Unlike child welfare workers, many are employees of juvenile courts. Probation was ‘the single most important component of the juvenile court program’ and even now is rarely performed by private agencies (Rothman 1980, p.218). As Duquette has suggested (Chapter 12), many think that probation services should not be located under court auspices.

The primary functions of probation officers are to screen cases, divert minor cases, conduct predisposition or pre-sentence investigations, and supervise cases in probation (Torbet 1996). Most probation officers’ interactions with young people are limited to office contacts and are normally short term. Some courts have developed field offices away from the court, and intensive probation programmes with smaller caseloads to increase the amount of contact with youth at home and in schools. Officers rarely keep in touch when youth are admitted to detention or residential care (Bercovitz, Bemus and Hendricks 1993). Child welfare workers, in contrast, typically oversee their most risky cases in foster and adoptive placements.

Whereas child welfare work is plagued with high turnover, poor salaries and public pressure over case errors, probation faces other issues. One of the biggest for juvenile probation is on-the-job safety. Probation also faces large caseload sizes, limited resources for programmes and intense accountability. Like child welfare, probation is also a ‘catch basin’ that cannot control rates of referral, though some decision-making systems have been developed to allocate cases according to levels of difficulty and risk (Torbet 1996).

Table 3.2 summarises some of the fundamental differences between the practice of child welfare and juvenile probation in the USA.

Table 3.2: Differences in the practice of child welfare and juvenile justice

Functional area Child welfare workers Juvenile probation officers
Workforce composition Female, young, little experience Male, middle-aged, 5–10 years’ experience
Typical annual salary ~$36,000 ~$46,000
Functions CPS investigation Intake

In-home services Diversion

Recommendations for termination of parental rights Predisposition investigation

Supervision of youth through office contacts

Foster care and adoption supervision through field contacts
Auspices State/county social services department State/county courts
Does worker directly supervise most risky cases? Yes. High-risk cases retained in birth homes, or placed in foster or adoptive homes No. High-risk cases transferred to adult court or placed in residential care
Caseload control Limited by the adequacy of assessments and service options

The table highlights that, commonly, child welfare workers have less experience, lower pay, a higher community profile, more exposure to public criticism and more direct responsibility for risky cases than their counterparts in juvenile justice. The capacity of both child welfare and juvenile justice to manage adequately their caseload depends on the adequacy of assessments and service options. In several respects, the differences between child welfare and juvenile justice seem gendered. Most child welfare workers are women and their contributions seem less valued than those of juvenile justice workers. Child welfare practices address vulnerable children and families; juvenile justice predominantly concerns the delinquency of boys.

The future of child welfare and juvenile justice practices

Despite the long-standing policy and organisational divergence of child welfare and juvenile justice a movement exists to support the merger of the two. Three recent critiques are driving practice and policy changes. Two trends have emerged to address these critiques.

First there are the managerial critiques about the general state of human service agencies. The public, elected officials and professionals fault these service systems as being isolated from other service systems, overly procedural, inflexible and non-reflective (Hutchison and Charlesworth 2000; King 1997). Correctional, mental health, welfare and educational systems have difficulty working together on cases. It has been suggested that proceduralism can be moderated and the system made more responsive to individual needs if practice is more strongly influenced by research, training or norms (Green 2003), and accountability through collaborative models of service (King 1997).

Second are the structural critiques, which argue that the resources, the kind and amount of services, and the logic systems that link them, are inadequate to achieve the needed outcomes, especially for multi-problem families (McCroskey and Meezan 1998, pp.56–60). These claims gain credibility with the projection that funding for services will continue to contract as almost all US states face deficits (Rivlin 2002). One structural critique has asserted that more services need to focus on prevention and even the alleviation of poverty. Another suggests the need to develop local community-based support to supplement public funds that are shrinking.

Third are the normative critiques. Services have been criticised for their undemocratic quality, being controlled by experts. Practices that have resulted in the disproportionate control over minorities have also been criticised. Traditional services are isolated from key stakeholders in the community, especially their ‘clients’ (Kretzman and McKnight 1996; Roussos and Fawcett 2000). Service activities should be balanced and include active participation by both immediate stakeholders and the larger community (Waldfogel 1998). The appeal to democratic values has been one of the strongest arguments for Balanced and Restorative Justice (BARJ) and its counterpart in child welfare, Family Group Decision Making (FGDM). These approaches hold not only that children and families should be accountable to the community, but also that the community should be accountable to children and families. BARJ and FGDM have reintroduced skills training and motivation into social welfare and juvenile justice systems that had become largely retributive and narrowly focused on compliance and short-term outcomes.

Another normative critique is that services should not be funded unless research has supported their effectiveness. The funding of services that have not been evaluated may not only waste resources it also may do harm. Jonson-Reid (2004) concludes that while child welfare intervention may prevent delinquency, ‘[it] is also possible to envision an inverse association between services and delinquent outcomes due to inept or insufficient services…’ (Jonson-Reid 2004, p.163).

Currently, US federal and state governments are promulgating two initiatives that have the potential to transform child welfare and juvenile justice practices: community-based problem-solving approaches and evidence-based practice (EBP). The two initiatives are complementary, and they hold out the potential for integrating child welfare and juvenile justice for some cases.

For example, problem-solving courts have become very common and include community courts, drug treatment courts, mental health courts, family courts, domestic violence courts and re-entry courts. Other community approaches include community prosecution, Family Group Decision Making and Balanced and Restorative Justice. These initiatives go beyond individual treatment to community-based and multifactor/multisector interventions, with scope for combining aspects of child welfare and juvenile justice practices.

The second initiative from federal and state governments, evidence-based practice (EBP), has been made possible by the expanded use of experimental research designs and the meta-analysis of results over the last 20 years. The federal government and private foundations have for some time made research and programme evaluation a routine component of service grants, as is now the case for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Networks and institutions have been established to assist in the application of research evidence to practice. On the other hand, two concerns have been expressed about EBP. The first is methodological and concerns the amount of research that is available, the degree to which application depends on local contexts (services), the role of ‘practice wisdom’ and professional values, personal experience, and participation from ‘clients’ (Gilgun 2005, p.58). The second is structural and concerns the degree to which service agencies will be able to incorporate research and evaluation into their ongoing operations.


These relatively new federal initiatives of community-based problem-solving and evidence-based practice address all three critiques of present service systems (managerial, structural and normative). They also provide a basis for bridging service systems such as child welfare and juvenile justice, among others. The sustainability of these initiatives should not be taken for granted, however. The separation of child welfare and juvenile justice has deep historical roots. The differences have been solidified by the development of separate work systems, including the composition of the workforce, compensation, functions, auspices and the exposure to risk.

The managerial critique suggested that proceduralism is an outgrowth of closed systems. Community-based problem-solving and evidence-based practice provide the venues and the means to cross system boundaries and make closed systems more open, especially in terms of their ability to provide assistance to families and communities rather than merely to individuals.

The structural critique suggested the need to address the adequacy of and accessibility to resources. These reforms suggest increased access to new resources. They can provide not only access to new resources in the community, but also can suggest more effective use of existing resources. Support for these system changes comes from a broad range of political and cultural viewpoints that have recently divided American political practice, as illustrated by the support for BARJ from people with very different viewpoints. An important set of resources are those of the children and families themselves, whose participation has been discounted in traditional service systems. Resources may be more effective if service recipients are more motivated to change and take advantage of them. Traditional services, on the other hand, disempower children and families and often commit the system to using the most expensive services, like jail, to compel participation. These initiatives also address normative critiques through increased democratic participation by service recipients and by community members.

The costs of collaborative projects may diminish the effects of these reforms. Collaborations are difficult to start and expensive to sustain. These reforms depend to a great extent on the commitment of government or private sponsors. At the local level, collaborations are process intensive and draw on community resources; they require education and staff structures to support both leadership by a few and participation by the community. Many project-based collaborations are vulnerable because they are not embedded permanently into an organisational structure. Yet some falter when they are expanded, requiring more resources to maintain (Roussos and Fawcett 2000; Sandfort 2004; Waldfogel 1998).

For the most part, recent innovations with a community- and evidence-based focus in the child welfare and juvenile justice fields have been adjuncts to existing court administrations and services, leaving the existing systems relatively unaffected. For changes to be substantial and sustainable, it remains for the staff and communities to embed the principles and practices into mainstream structures and activities.


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Further reading

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Braithwaite, J. (2001) ‘Restorative Justice and a New Criminal Law of Substance Abuse.’ Youth & Society 33, 2, 227–248.

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Drake, B. and Jonson-Reid, M. (2000) ‘Substantiation and Early Decision Points in Public Child Welfare: A Conceptual Reconsideration.’ Child Maltreatment 5, 3, 227–235.

English, D.J. (1998) ‘The extent and consequences of child maltreatment.’ In M.B. Larner (ed) Protecting Children from Abuse and Neglect. Los Altos, CA: David and Lucille Packard Foundation.

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Green, M.Y. (2002) ‘Minorities as Majority: Disproportionality in Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice.’ Children’s Voice, November/December.

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