January 01, 2012

Improving the Response to Crossover Youth: New Study Highlights Outcomes after Leaving the System

Claire Chiamulera

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Do youth on your caseload enter the child welfare system, then later wind up in the juvenile justice system after committing a crime? Chances are you have represented some “crossover youth.”

A new study traces the unique risks and outcomes that these youth face when they age out of the system as adults. Poverty, incarceration, public assistance dependence, low educational attainment, and mental health problems rank high among their outcomes.

The Study

The study, “Young Adult Outcomes of Youth Exiting Dependent or Delinquent Care in Los Angeles County,” was funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. It looked at youth who exited foster care or probation in Los Angeles County in 2002 or 2004 and linked them to records of public service use from 2005 to 2009 across seven Los Angeles County departments and two California state agencies.

The study findings come as California is implementing a new law that extends foster care from age 18 to 21. The results uncover this group’s unique needs and suggest where services and supports are most needed for these youth. Practitioners and policymakers nationwide can gain insights about these youth and how to better serve them while they are still in the system to promote more positive outcomes once they leave.

Three groups were studied: (1) youth who exited the child welfare system, (2) youth who exited the juvenile probation system, and (3) crossover youth who exited a child welfare placement who also had a record of involvement with the juvenile probation system. All youth were between the ages of 16 and 21 upon exit.

Common Outcomes


One-third of former foster youth and one-half of crossover youth experienced a period of extreme poverty during their young adult years with extremely low earnings. For example, a youth exiting the foster care system had cumulative earnings of just under $30,000 over the first four years. The record for crossover youth is even more dismal —less than $14,000 over four years.


Crossover youth had high incarceration rates after leaving the system, with nearly two-thirds having a jail stay. Adult probation was less common, with approximately 18% experiencing adult probation supervision during the first one-to-four years after they left the system.

Public assistance

Not surprisingly, crossover youths’ use of public assistance was substantial with 82 percent accessing public welfare benefits during the first four years after exiting the system. Of those leaving foster care, 68 percent accessed public welfare benefits during the first four years. These rates declined in years five to eight but were still substantial—41 percent for foster youth and 54 percent for crossover youth.

In comparison to foster youth with no involvement in the juvenile justice system, crossover youth were more than twice as likely to be heavy users of public systems in adulthood, three times as likely to experience a jail stay, 1.5 times more likely to receive welfare, and 50 percent less likely to be consistently employed. Foster youth who had consistent earnings had public service costs 70 percent lower than those who were not employed.

Secondary/postsecondary education

Just under half of former foster youth and crossover youth enrolled in community college but only about two percent received an associate degree. There was a strong association between level of educational attainment and higher likelihood of employment and earnings as well as lower levels of public service use, jail stays, and public cash assistance.

Health/Mental health

Crossover youth had the highest rates of inpatient (9%) and outpatient (26%) health service use among the three groups. Their emergency department use (27%) was also double the rate of the child welfare and juvenile probation groups.

Crossover youth were more likely than foster youth with no juvenile justice involvement to experience serious challenges including serious mental health illnesses—more than double the rates of those who were in foster care. In the first four years after leaving care, the crossover group had the highest rate of outpatient mental health treatment (45% accessed outpatient mental health services).

Costs after System Exit

The study confirmed that crossover youth currently average triple the per-person cost of public service dollars compared with foster care-only youth. Crossover youth costs averaged $35,171 over four years versus $12,532 for foster youth.

Criminal justice costs accounted for the largest share of average public costs in adulthood. A quarter of former foster youth and two-thirds of crossover youth have a jail stay in early adulthood. The average cumulative cost of jail stays over four years in young adulthood ranged from $18,430 for a foster youth to $33,946 for a crossover youth.

Improving Outcomes

The researchers identified several recommendations for policymakers to improve immediate and long-term outcomes for youth leaving dependent or delinquent care.

  • Provide ongoing outreach and support to crossover youth that increases their ability to adapt to and assimilate to mainstream norms as adults.
  • Know the substantial demands these youth place on public services systems when they become adults. Adopt policies and programs for youth in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems to help them successfully transition to adulthood.
  • Develop policies that address the varied outcomes and different characteristics and needs of these youth (one size does not fit all).
  • Learn from at-risk youth who secure stable jobs. What are the keys to their success? Use their successes to inform policies and develop programs that replicate their positive experiences.
  • Provide targeted support to youth who enroll in college to help them graduate. Among youth who enroll in postsecondary education after aging out, a low proportion finish their programs of study.
  • Identify youth who are heavy service users. Give them intensive services (housing, health and mental health services, case coordination) that promote better outcomes and save costs once they leave the system.

With a clearer understanding of the paths crossover youth take after leaving the system and their risk factors, we can begin to rethink how the child welfare and juvenile justice systems serve them before they exit and face lives on their own.


Claire Chiamulera is the editor of ABA Child Law Practice.

Characteristics of Crossover Youth at System Exit

  • Gender: 65% male
  • Race/Ethnicity: 56% African American, 30% Latino
  • Avg. age at system exit: 18 years
  • Avg. age at first arrest: 12 years
  • Typical caregiving setting at exit from child welfare system: group homes or juvenile/adult correctional facilities

Crossover Youth Outcomes: Underlying Factors

The researchers analyzed the relationship of several factors identified in the study with outcomes for crossover youth. They made the following conclusions:

  • Membership in the crossover group is a strong and consistent predictor of less desirable outcomes.
  • Consistent employment is associated with positive outcomes.
  • Among child welfare-involved youth, older age at entry into care is consistently associated with less desirable outcomes.
  • A history of treatment for a serious mental illness is associated with an increased likelihood of a jail stay, receipt of public assistance, and lower wage earnings.
  • Evidence shows that independent living (IL) programs that provide housing assistance promote positive outcomes, but closer study of IL programs is needed.