Family Circumstances and Unmet Needs

Section 2.2

Education, Social Service, Community-based, Child Welfare, Runaway and Homeless Youth, Mental Health, Law Enforcement and Juvenile Justice Systems Should Determine the Proper Course of Action by Identifying the Family Circumstances, Unmet Needs, or Other Factors that Led to Contact with the Status Offense System

The status offense process is typically not the best way to serve youth and families with unmet needs.  Other informal or formal systems or processes that could address the youth’s issues include mental health, social service or community-based services, family court (custody), special education, child welfare, emancipation or civil commitment proceedings. 

It is essential that youth who have allegedly committed status offenses receive appropriate screening to identify physical, mental health (including trauma) and special education needs, as well as any substance abuse issues.  

While youth charged with status offenses become involved with the justice system because of behaviors that pose little risk to society, they often come from chaotic and even dangerous homes and communities, and may have witnessed or been victims of violence.1  They or their families may be struggling with trauma or other mental health issues, substance abuse or other challenges. These youth may also enter the status offense system because of the failure of other systems (e.g., schools, child welfare) to appropriately identify and address their needs.  For this reason, it is essential that youth who have allegedly committed status offenses receive appropriate screening to identify physical, mental health (including trauma) and special education needs, as well as any substance abuse issues.  Their physical and emotional safety should also be addressed, and steps should be taken to protect them from victimization at home, in school or in their communities.  Children’s needs and strengths should be taken into account and used to develop a plan for addressing the alleged status offense, making referrals to and working with other systems, and, if necessary, providing services through the court system. 

It is imperative that juvenile justice, child welfare and community-based services use evidence-based or empirically-supported screening tools to triage institutional responses, and assessment tools to identify areas in which a youth may need assistance.2  The term “screening tool” usually refers to a short instrument that may identify youth who need further evaluation, and may be administered to all children entering a system.  The term “assessment” is often used for a more detailed instrument which looks at more types of information (e.g., risks, needs, strengths).  Assessments may require more training and education than screening tools to be administered properly.3  These instruments should be valid and reliable4 and should be appropriate for the population with which they are being used (e.g., designed for and tested with youth of the same age group, gender, ethnicity, etc.). 

Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, also known as the Federal Foster Care Act, states that before ordering removal or accepting a recommendation that a child be removed from his or her home, courts must determine whether the agency made “reasonable efforts” to prevent removal by providing supportive services to the child and family.5  Similarly, youth-serving systems must be accountable for making reasonable efforts to provide services and supports for children in their own homes and schools before a child is charged with a status offense.  For example, in truancy cases one must consider whether the school is failing to protect the child from bullying or failing to meet special education needs.  In a runaway case, it must be determined whether the child is running from an abusive parent, or being pushed out due to family conflict because of his or her sexuality or gender identity. 

Due to high caseloads, probation officers often don’t have the time to provide the intensive services youth and families likely need.  Unfortunately, when probation officers’ interventions fail to meaningfully address the child’s responses to the family or school, many youth end up pushed more deeply into the justice system.  When deciding whether another formal or informal system or services would be more appropriate, professionals should consider:6

  • What circumstances at home, at school, or in the community is the youth responding or reacting to with the behavior at issue?
  • Which services or systems does the youth prefer to work with?
  • What resources or services does the youth need, and what course of action will most likely provide what is needed?
  • What is the youth’s relationship with his or her parents and how willing are the parents to work with the different systems or service providers? (e.g., does the child need to be protected through a child welfare case; would the parents be willing advocates for the child in a special education hearing?)
  • What are the legal consequences of system involvement? (e.g., a juvenile court record)
  • Which system or community-based provider has the ability to move the child into the best possible placement, if necessary? (e.g., if conflict with a parent is an issue, would a change of custody to a noncustodial parent or relative be more appropriate; if the child needs inpatient mental health services, could those be provided through the mental health system?)

Professionals should also remain mindful of their ongoing involvement with the youth and family. Even in situations where it initially seems there are no better alternatives to the status offense system, professionals must be careful to avoid increasing youth and family contact with the system solely or primarily for the purpose of accessing services. As they get to know the child and family better, new information may come to light that shows that another system or community-based alternative may be better able to respond to the family’s or child’s needs.  In those cases, decision makers, like the court or social service provider, may consider conducting combined agency and family meetings to determine the best course of action and to make recommendations to the court.

To achieve the best possible outcomes, when youth are working with more than one system, provider or have their case transferred from one system to another, professionals should share and use information effectively, without violating youth’s due process and privacy rights.  This may be achieved by entering into Memorandums of Understanding with other relevant systems; see Section 4.12 for more information.

1  Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., Hamby, S., & Richard Ormrod (2011). “Polyvictimization: Children’s Exposure to Multiple Types of Violence, Crime, and Abuse.” Juvenile Justice Bulletin – NCJ 235504. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Available at:

2 Screenings and assessments commonly used in the juvenile justice and child welfare system include the UCLA PTSD index and the MAYSI-2.

3 AOC Center for Families, Children & the Court (2011). Screenings and Assessments Used in the Juvenile Justice System: Evaluating Risks and Needs of Youth in the Juvenile Justice System.  Available at:  Conradi, L., Kisiel, C., & Wherry, J. (2012). “Linking Child Welfare and Mental Health Using Trauma-Informed Screening and Assessment Practices.”  Child Welfare, 90(6), 129-147.

4 “Reliability” refers to a measure’s consistency when outcomes over numerous and varied administrations are looked at and “validity” refers to an instrument’s accuracy at measuring what it is intended to.

5 Title IV-E, Section 472 (a)(2)(A)(ii) of the Social Security Act.

6 Adapted from Benton, H. et al., Representing Juvenile Status Offenders.