CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Children who have experienced maltreatment are significantly more likely to engage in delinquent behavior, according to a unique new study matching child welfare and juvenile court records from Chicago and its Cook County suburbs.
The rate of delinquency increases even more among those removed from their homes and placed in foster care, say researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who produced the study. The connection is most dramatic among boys moved between multiple foster homes.
"This study represents one of the largest and most comprehensive efforts to understand maltreatment and delinquency," says Joseph Ryan, a professor in the Children and Family Research Center (CFRC), part of the university's School of Social Work. Ryan wrote the study along with Mark Testa, also a professor of social work at Illinois and the director of the CFRC.
They are presenting their work this week at the annual conference of the Society for Social Work and Research, being held in New Orleans.
The connections between maltreatment, foster care instability and delinquency have been suggested in previous research, Ryan said. This is the first time, however, that researchers have been able to draw on all the records from both child welfare and juvenile court systems in a given area.
They started with child welfare records on the 18,676 children born in 1983-84 who were brought into the child welfare system following substantiated allegations of abuse or neglect in Cook County. The records were available to researchers as part of a long-term cooperative agreement between the CFRC and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
They then matched the child welfare records with delinquency petitions filed in the Cook County Juvenile Court. The records used from both systems covered the children from birth to age 18. The researchers also made use of census and delinquency data from the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority to determine delinquency rates for
non-maltreated children of similar age.
"The results indicate that substantiated victims of maltreatment average 47 percent higher delinquency rates relative to children not indicated for abuse or neglect," Ryan said. "In addition, approximately 16 percent of children placed into substitute care experience at least one delinquency petition compared to 7 percent of all maltreatment victims who are not removed from their families." (About one-third of children are removed from their homes following substantiated reports of abuse or neglect, Ryan said.)
Broken down further, the statistics appear to show a different connection for girls than boys, Ryan said. For girls, it appears that placement into a foster home, even if stable, is highly correlated with delinquency. Girls with one placement showed a 6 percent rate of delinquency, versus 3 percent for those who remained in their family homes, and the rate increased little with multiple placements, he said. The rate of delinquency for all girls placed into foster homes was 8 percent.
For boys, however, "it seems that it is placement instability, rather than placement itself, that increases the risk of delinquency for male victims of maltreatment," Ryan said. Among males with one placement in a foster home, the rate of delinquency was 12 percent, nearly identical to the 11 percent for males who remained in their family homes. Even among those with two placements, the rate was about the same, but increased to 16 percent among those with three placements and 21 percent among those with four or more. Overall, 23 percent of the boys in substitute care had at least one delinquency petition.
That means almost a quarter of the boys entering placement eventually end up in juvenile court, "and given the long-term negative outcomes associated with delinquency, that's a big deal," Ryan said.
Seeing that instability in placements dramatically increases the risk of delinquency is a significant finding in the research, he said. "The goal from here is to figure out what causes instability and determine what it is about instability that increases the risk of delinquency."
In child welfare practice, the study's results may indicate a need to continually improve efforts to match children with foster parents, cutting down on multiple placements, Ryan said. "We certainly need to figure out the match between what individual youth need and what the individual foster homes are able to provide. Placement instability may also disrupt relationships with meaningful individuals and institutions, and many of these relationships work as protective factors."
The researchers also have an agreement to analyze records from the Chicago Public Schools, providing a means for further investigation of the ties between maltreatment, placement instability, academic achievement, school mobility, delinquency and other concerns involving children in the child welfare system.