Child and Family Safety, Well-Being, and Permanency

Section 1.1

Judicial, Legal, Law Enforcement, Justice, Social Service and School Professionals Should Apply a Child and Family-centric Approach to Status Offense Cases By Prioritizing Child and Family Safety, Well-being and Permanency for the Child

Youth who come into contact with the court system because of an alleged status offense have often experienced poverty, trauma, abuse and neglect, as well as other physical and emotional injuries and disadvantages.  When investigating such cases, it is not uncommon for a first responder to discover that the youth could be referred to and better served by the child welfare system instead of the delinquency system.  Recognizing the significant need for child and family-centered responses, several states have empowered their child welfare systems to respond to status offense cases.1  Yet, despite the fact that youth charged with status offenses have not been accused of a criminal or delinquent offense, more than half the states (and their local jurisdictions) vest the authority to respond to status offenses with their respective delinquency systems rather than their child welfare systems. In many cases, whether a child enters one system over the other is simply a function of the child’s age.

The National Standards advocate that states and local jurisdictions configure their systems to quickly identify the root cause of a youth’s alleged charge and consistently keep youth and their families’ interests at the center of any response or intervention.

The National Standards propose a different construct, one that mirrors the “safety, permanency and well-being” framework of the child welfare system’s Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA).2   Like ASFA’s focus on the child’s best interests, the National Standards advocate that states and local jurisdictions configure their systems to quickly identify the root cause of a youth’s alleged charge and consistently keep youth and their families’ interests at the center of any response or intervention.  Pursuing these and other reforms in systems and system culture will ensure implementation of policies, programs and practices that can most effectively meet the needs of youth and their families with little or no court intervention.

Important principles adapted from ASFA that can and should be considered when responding to families and youth alleged to have committed a status offense include:3

  • Efforts to identify the cause of the status offense should begin well before court involvement and be expedited, where appropriate, with the provision of services to the youth and family. It is critical that  relevant stakeholders, where appropriate, provide services or supports as quickly as possible to enable youth and/or families in crisis to address and resolve problems.  When timely and intensive services are provided, agencies and courts can make informed decisions about the youth’s/family’s ability to function without deeper system assistance.  It is also important that those same stakeholders not widen the justice system net by providing diversion or intervention services where no action is needed or if even nominal justice system involvement could have a negative effect on the youth or family, particularly in low-risk, first time cases.4
  • Involvement in the court system for a status offense can lead to deeper justice system involvement. Research shows that the longer youth are court-involved the greater the likelihood that they may enter and become embroiled in the justice system. Thus, system responses should prioritize diversion approaches and other responses that prevent or limit youths’ court involvement.5
  • Responses to status offense behaviors should focus on system accountability and positive outcomes for youth and their families. There are a number of tools that jurisdictions, organizations and practitioners can use to focus on system accountability and quality service delivery for families in crisis, including annual reports of performance with statistics on cases diverted from court, cases petitioned to court and cases that re-enter the system.  State and local jurisdictions should also assess additional ways to create performance-based incentives for agencies that manage and contribute to the response.  Section 4 of the National Standards specifies that policymakers should work toward and expect positive results in status offense cases.
  • Effective responses to status offense behaviors should do no harm. Given the nature and underlying causes of status offense behaviors, jurisdictions should make any and all reasonable efforts to not further traumatize youth who may already be suffering from physical, mental and emotional injury.  “Do no harm” approaches will avoid court involvement in the first instance and prevent youth from being securely confined at any point in the process.

1 See, e.g., 42 Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes Annotated Judiciary and Judicial Procedures § 6302; 31 Delaware Code Annotated § 301; Minnesota Statutes Annotated § 260C.007.

2 Adoption and Safe Families Act, 42 U.S.C. Section 1305, et. seq. (1997). 

3 Principles discussion adapted from:  U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. (1998). “Program Instruction, Log No. ACYF-CB-PI-98-02.” Available at:

4 See, The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. (Sept. 1999) Diversion Programs, An Overview. Available at:

5 See, e.g.,  Petrosino, A, Turpin-Petrosino, C., and Sarah Guckenburg (January 2010). “Formal System Processing of Juveniles: Effects on Delinquency.” Campbell Systematic Reviews, 2010:1.