Research as a Poverty Fighter: The Link between Poverty, Child Welfare, and Criminal Justice

Research as a Poverty Fighter: The Link between Poverty, Child Welfare, and Criminal Justice
Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity
Alexander Busansky

Exiting poverty is not as simple as gaining economic traction. Overlapping needs can reinforce one another to bind the web of poverty ever tighter. The good news is that research on assessment practices in child welfare, juvenile justice, and adult recidivism can yield critical lessons for poverty fighters hoping to address the many ways that poverty affects people’s lives. Through this work, practitioners have developed a better understanding of how poverty is associated with increased entry into social service systems—and how agencies can make a difference.

For anyone who cares about reducing poverty, it’s essential to understand the deep linkages between poverty among children and adults and subsequent entry into the social service and justice systems. The grim truth is that children in poverty face an increased likelihood of entering child protective services and the juvenile justice system. Similarly, adults in poverty are more likely to enter the criminal justice and adult protective services systems.

Regardless of whether individuals and families exit poverty, its impact endures. Individuals may be incarcerated or facing the challenges of reentry into the community; parents must work to reunite with children in foster care; juvenile-justice-involved teens need services and treatment to right their paths.

Working with public and private partners, our organization, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD), and others collaborate with social service agencies to place a greater emphasis on data. This includes using actuarial research to improve caseworker decision making and assessment practices, and analyzing agency data to help agencies monitor their clients’ outcomes and learn more about the populations they serve so that they can work with them effectively.

From our work in Michigan and Wisconsin, for example, we know that when agencies identify their highest risk clients – and target resources to help them – they have the greatest impact. Studies in adult and juvenile corrections and child welfare have demonstrated that active service intervention with high risk clients can reduce criminal recidivism and the recurrence of child maltreatment.

Because the effects of poverty often take hold early in life, targeting resources based on a family’s risk level can make a big difference in child welfare. For example, evidence suggests that actuarial risk assessments have greater reliability and classification power than consensus-based assessments.

Based on this research, groups like NCCD have developed decision-support systems for child protective services that are used across the nation and around the world. In just a single jurisdiction where we have worked, the number of children in out-of-home care was reduced by 68 percent, while the rate of children being reunified within 12 months of removal increased by almost 20 percent.

The second key area for which we need a greater emphasis on research-based practice is juvenile justice. The truth is that many of the children who wind up in the juvenile justice system or the adult criminal justice system may have been abused or neglected in the past. 

Unfortunately, many assessment systems currently used by juvenile justice practitioners have little evidence to support any relationship to outcomes, making it difficult to use them as guides for serving youth. To ameliorate this evidence gap, NCCD is currently conducting research in several states to help us learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of current juvenile justice assessment systems.

Finally, it’s not just among children that poverty and criminal justice intersect. Adult incarceration is one of the most daunting obstacles to long-term, family-sustaining employment. Time spent incarcerated means separation not just from family and community but from opportunities for legal and stable sources of income.

As with children, adults need a corrections assessment and case management system that can demonstrably reduce recidivism while also providing greater equity in assessment and supervision across gender, racial, and ethnic groups. NCCD hopes to conduct further research on the validity of assessment systems currently used in adult corrections in order to add needed data to the field.

NCCD and others in the field also study disproportionate minority contact with the child welfare and criminal justice systems, examining ways that these systems interact with racial and ethnic groups. This will help move us toward practice that is fair, equitable, and more effective at helping individuals and families thrive.

While there is much still to learn in all three of these areas, we at NCCD believe that it is vital to approach the complex nature of poverty with a comprehensive view of social science research.

No one initiative is enough to untangle, examine, and loosen the constricting web of poverty. We must pay attention to every aspect of life that contributes to poverty, that complicates the ability of families to get out of it, and that creates ongoing challenges for those who experience it.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Alexander Busansky is the president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

This article was originally published on the Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity website.  It is reprinted here with permission.

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