Creaking Interstate Compact Doesn't Flag Trouble in State-to-State Youth Transfers

Nancy Traver
March 1, 1998

Michael Park, 13, has a history of non-violent crime. In 1995, he is sent on probation from Oklahoma to Colorado, where he moves in with his father. Colorado authorities are not informed he’s in their state. He robs a man at an ATM, then kills him. Charged with homicide and aggravated robbery, he is sentenced to five years in an institution for juveniles. A 17-year-old sex offender is released from a treatment facility in Washington state. She has nowhere to go; her father, in western Colorado, agrees to take her back home. But there is a young relative living in the home who has already been sexually abused by the offender. Colorado authorities have no choice but to place her in the home.

The case requires counseling, many home visits and supervision. The taxpayers in Colorado pick up the tab, even though she originally broke the law in Washington.
These are just two stories from the interstate compact system — a nationwide collection of loosely drawn cooperative agreements that provides for the transfer of children, young people and adults across state lines. Betsy Rosenbaum, director of family and child welfare services at the American Public Welfare Association, estimates that “many thousands” of children are sent from state to state under the compact. She said no official count is made. The cases above came under the jurisdiction of the Interstate Compact for the Placement of Juveniles.

Compact officials said though, that 26 states reported 9,880 cases last year.
But there are many compacts — one providing for the placement of babies who are adopted or for children placed in foster homes, another for the placement of the mentally ill, another for the placement of adults on parole or probation. All are moved across state lines, sometimes with little notification to the receiving state. Sometimes — as in the case of the Oklahoma boy who committed a murder — notification comes well after the parolee arrives.

Julie Chavez-Navarro, director of assessment services for the Division of Youth Services in Colorado, says, “A lot of times parolees are sent here and we don’t even know about them. They’re your basic dump jobs.”

Jerry Adamek, director of the Division of Youth Corrections in Colorado, says, “We didn’t even know he was here. We weren’t alerted about his significant history. If we had, we would have provided more supervision. Or we might have refused his entry in the first place, or we would have moved to get him out of this state.”

Adamek is working to change what he sees as shortcomings in the Interstate Compact for the Placement of Juveniles (ICPJ). He will address the next conference of compact administrators meeting this month in Orlando, Fla. Adamek and his allies are calling for a federal oversight board that would better monitor the movement of youth around the nation. He also says there should be an appeals process, under which a receiving state can stop another state from sending a troubled teen across the border. And Adamek wants to pull the compact into the computer age. He says now most states keep their records on paper, communicating with each other by phone and the U.S. mail.

Change Won’t Be Easy

But bringing change won’t be easy. The ICPJ is an agreement drafted in 1954 and approved by the legislatures of all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Altering it would require approval by 50 state legislatures and the governments of all parties to the compact, a lengthy task that interstate compact administrators deem nearly impossible. Some administrators insist, though, that the system can be improved by better cooperation and communication between states.
Fred McDonald, president of the compact administrators’ association and the compact administrator from West Virginia, says changes can be made through the group’s rules and regulations committee. “For the most part, the compact is in place. But every state has to adhere to it, not try to skirt it,” he says.

One of the biggest problems, McDonald says, is that family court judges ignore the compact. They order youths sent to homes of willing relatives out of state, without waiting for home study reports to determine whether the placement is positive.
McDonald points to other problems as well. “We’re dealing with kids today that have far more serious problems than when the law was drafted in 1954. These are kids with adult problems — many more sex offenders, everything including murder.”

Kathleen McBride, interstate compact administrator for Washington state, says placing sex offenders is becoming a bigger headache for every administrator. She estimates that at least once a month, she has to find a placement for what she calls “a high-profile case involving a sex offender from out of state.”

Michael Reddish, ICPJ administrator from Nebraska and the group’s vice president, says, “We’ve got an exploding juvenile justice population. Youth facilities in Nebraska have been over capacity for years. It’s a problem trying to find places for all these kids.”
Linda Bombaci, compact administrator for New Hampshire and secretary for the administrators’ association, says, “There’s no problem with the compact. There’s just not enough staff to do the necessary field work.”

Even as caseworkers struggle to keep up with troubled teens who need to be placed, American families increasingly break up and move from state to state. That means a father may live in New York, while his ex-wife lives in California and their three children spend time with relatives at several points in between.

Meanwhile, according to Edward Loughran, executive director of the Council of Juvenile Correction Administrators, many more children are being placed in for-profit and nonprofit treatment programs out of state. The directors of these facilities must be educated and brought into compliance with the interstate compact system, he said. “There are so many other players now, not just the states and the counties. There are homes that receive kids from all over the country,” he said.

More Mobile Society

In the middle of all this, change in providers, an increasingly mobile society and a spiraling juvenile crime rate, the ICPJ hasn’t changed much in more than 40 years since it was drafted. Before the compact, child welfare workers became concerned that troubled children were not getting the care and attention they deserved.

Joann Noffsinger, compact administrator from Oregon, says, “Kids were sent cross country on trains. Farmers took them off if they needed an extra hand.”

The compact was written to create a better system of monitoring children’s movement around the country. But some now complain that the system is too bureaucratic, slow to respond and outdated.

Sharon Marchiol, deputy compact administrator in Colorado, says the lines of communication spelled out in the compact are “set in stone.” She explained that under the compact, only administrators are allowed to talk about cases, rather than having probation officers share information directly.

“It’s bureaucracy at its worst because we have to go through all these channels,” says Marchiol. “Are we taking care of kids or are we just protecting our own jobs?”

Other compact administrators who spoke not for attribution by name said the compact association has been turf conscious and resistant to change in the past. Says one administrator from a western state, “Some have heard what Jerry (Adamek) is trying to do and they don’t like it. They see him as an outsider. He’s not a compact administrator, they say, so he doesn’t really know what’s going on.”

But some in the interstate compact defend the present system and say it can be made to work by better cooperation among administrators and they say thorough investigation of every case will ensure better, safer placements.

Duane Edwards, compact administrator from New Mexico, says, “We need to get a true picture of kids, to dig into their backgrounds. If my case officers think it’s a negative placement, they are encouraged to tell me and I tell the sending state.”

But Edwards says his hands are frequently tied because, under the compact, if a legal guardian or parent will accept a child, he or she must be placed with the parent. “We can’t deny placement in those instances,” he says.

Edwards say one of his biggest problems is getting the home studies done and keeping up with all the cases on his desk. “I’m a one-person office and I deal with 450 referrals every year, plus up to 400 runaways. It’s tough to keep up.”

Critical Function

Donna Bonner, deputy compact administrator in Texas, says in some states, the compact offices are treated “like the poor stepchild.” Says Bonner: “Whenever resources or funding are an issue, the compacts get what’s left over and sometimes there isn’t anything. We carry out an extremely critical function of the juvenile justice system but there’s very little regard for us.”

She’s seen states in which one compact administrator handles a caseload of 3,000 and no computer. Bonner says she’d like to see a national limit of 200 cases per staffer.

According to Bonner, another problem in the ICPJ is the differing definition of a juvenile. In California, for example, youth up to the age of 25 are considered juveniles; in North Carolina, the age limit is 16. “You just have such different services required by the different age groups,” she says. “But under the compact, receiving states are supposed to provide the same services as the sending state. We can’t say no.”

Yet many compact administrators say they would say no to the idea of a federal oversight board. Such a federal role would rob the state administrators of their authority, says Edwards of New Mexico.

Instead, he suggested a system of sanctions. States that send a youth in violation of compact procedures would lose 3 to 5 percent of their federal funds, under his proposal. “Somebody needs to get hurt in the pocketbook,” Edwards says. “Until then, no one will take the grievance process very seriously.”

Others point out that, while a grievance procedure does exist, gathering the necessary documentation to launch a mediation request is very difficult for already overburdened administrators.

Some administrators say the system would work better if it had more legal assistance. Says McDonald: “We’re looking for an agency that can provide us with legal interpretations. We need good legal opinions.”

Noffsinger, compact administrator of Oregon, says there has been inadequate case law relating to the ICPJ. “So far, we haven’t had many legal opinions on this because the victims have never hired attorneys who sued,” she says. “What will happen is that somebody’s going to get hurt and there will be lawsuits. Then we’ll have better case law.”

Several sound the alarm that the present system is headed toward disaster. Says Marchiol of Colorado: “We’re not serving kids the way we should and we lose a lot of them. They’re moving too fast and getting into worse trouble. And we’re putting society in jeopardy. Besides, the taxpayers are footing the bill and they’re not getting their money’s worth.”

But many agreed that the compact can be made to work if more people would become aware of its provisions and abide by them. Says Bonner of Texas: “It’s a viable law. But it needs to get the attention it deserves, or it will die on the vine.”

Is unraveling this tangle of state jurisdictions, a task for the federal government? Apparently not. Federal law does not apply and there is no effort by the government to change that status.

“There’s no federal legislation because any change would have to be state-by-state-by-state. All parties would have to be part to any change in the compacts,” says Bombaci.


Fred McDonald


Association of Juvenile Compact Administrators

West Virginia Supreme Court Administrative Offices

1900 Kanawha Blvd. E.

Charleston, WV 25305

(304) 558-4281

Betsy Rosenbaum

American Public Welfare Association

810 First St., NE, Ste. 500

Washington, DC 20001

(202) 682-0100

Edward Loughran

Executive Director

Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators

103 Atlantic Ave.

Boston, MA 02110

(617) 227-7730

Jerry Adamek

Division of Youth Services

4255 S. Knox Court

Denver, CO 80236

(303) 866-7345

Traver, Nancy. "Creaking Interstate Compact Doesn’t Flag Trouble in State-to-State Youth Transfers." Youth Today, March/April 1998, p. 10.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.