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Group homes appear to double delinquency risk for foster kids, study says

Joe Ryan, Jane Marie Marshall, Pedro Hernandez
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Social work professor Joe Ryan, right, and Jane Marie Marshall, a doctoral student, and Pedro Hernandez, research analyst, collaborated on a study investigating the effects of group homes on delinquency rates. It appears that group homes have an immediate and negative impact.


Craig Chamberlain, News Editor

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Group homes are generally the placement of last resort for children in foster care, and also one of the most expensive options for state child-welfare agencies.

It appears that group homes also play a significant role in pushing the children they serve toward the juvenile-justice system, according to a new study in Los Angeles County, led by a University of Illinois professor.

“Our results found that kids (mostly adolescents) who enter group home placements are about two-and-a-half times more likely to enter the juvenile-justice system relative to similar kids, with similar backgrounds, who are served in foster-home settings,” says Joseph Ryan, a professor in the Children and Family Research Center (CFRC), part of the university’s School of Social Work.

What is more, Ryan said, the group-home effect on delinquency appears to be fairly immediate. “The vast majority of (first-time) arrests occur while the adolescent is actually under the supervision of the group home,” rather than months or years after they leave, he said.

Keeping foster youth out of the juvenile-justice system is especially important because they have fewer options once there, Ryan said. “We know once child-welfare youth are in the juvenile-justice system, they’re less likely to get probation and more likely to get pushed deeper into the juvenile-justice system,” he said.

Another concern grows from the fact that African-Americans are over represented in the child-welfare system, and in group homes specifically, Ryan said. The group-home effect therefore might be contributing to the even greater overrepresentation of
African-Americans in the juvenile-justice system, as well as in prisons, he said.

The study, “Juvenile Delinquency in Child Welfare: Investigating Group Home Effects,” has been accepted for publication and posted online (access restricted) by Children and Youth Services Review, a prominent journal for research on child-welfare issues.

Co-authors of the study are Jane Marie Marshall, a doctoral student in social work; Denise Herz, a professor of criminal justice at California State University, Los Angeles; and Pedro Hernandez, a research analyst at the U. of I.

The study and its conclusions were made possible by a unique data-sharing agreement that gave researchers access to both child-welfare and juvenile-justice records in Los Angeles County, Ryan said. They were able to track individuals in their movements through both systems, and see connections between the two, he said.

Previous research has shown a connection between foster care and delinquency and other negative outcomes – some of that research even suggesting that children might be better off staying in troubled homes rather than going into foster care, Ryan said. “Those findings might lead one to erroneously believe that all child-welfare placements are problematic, and perhaps equally problematic,” he said.

The study of Los Angeles County, he said, shows that different kinds of placements can have dramatically different effects.

As a starting point for the study, researchers had access to administrative records for all children and families involved with the Department of Children and Family Services and the Department of Probation in Los Angeles County, in both cases for the period between 2001 and 2005. From those records, they compiled a sample of all the children between the ages of 7 and 16 who had been placed outside their own home by child welfare at least once.

Children and adolescents placed in group homes, compared with those placed only in foster care family settings, have generally been through more placements, are slightly older, and have more characteristics often associated with delinquency, Ryan said. The authors used econometric methods, known as propensity score matching, to help disentangle the effect of those individual characteristics from the effect associated with group-home placement, he said.

By way of this method, they matched 4,113 youth who had been in group homes with 4,113 with similar characteristics who had only been served in foster family home placements.  Twenty percent of the group-home sample experienced at least one arrest, as compared with 8 percent of the matched foster-care sample.

Ryan said he was surprised by the size of the group-home effect, even after controlling for individual differences.  He was also surprised by the differences that emerged with regard to the type of offending.  Group-home youth were significantly more likely to be arrested for violent and threat-related offenses. 

As to why children in group-home settings are more likely to experience arrests and enter the juvenile-justice system, Ryan said he sees two promising areas for research.

One involves the possibility of “peer contagion,” in which deviant adolescents influence one another to become more delinquent than they otherwise would have been. Related, he said, is the common practice of mixing delinquent and non-delinquent youth in congregate or group-home settings.

The other area involves looking at whether group-home policies or procedures cause staff to more readily contact law enforcement in given situations and whether those might contribute to the likelihood of arrest for a given behavior.

“It does raise the question of whether there is a lower threshold in group settings versus other foster-home settings,” Ryan said. “Are staff more likely to engage law enforcement to resolve physical and threat-related conflict, which then sets off a chain of negative events?”

Editor’s note: To reach Joseph Ryan, call 217-244-5235; email: