LAMP Feature

Youth in Military Families: An Invisible At-Risk Population

The ABA Standing Committee on Legal Assistance for Military Personnel (LAMP) has begun convening periodic Roundtable events at locations around the country, bringing together area stakeholders to identify and discuss the civil legal needs of military members and their families in the community, and to coordinate efforts to meet those needs. In July 2011 the ABA LAMP and the Washington State Bar Association LAMP held a “Roundtable on Meeting the Legal Needs of Military Families and Youth,” at which the Seattle-based Center for Children and Youth Justice gave a presentation on the unique legal needs of at-risk military youth. This article briefly covers the topic as it was addressed at the Roundtable.

The Center for Children and Youth Justice (CCYJ) is a Seattle-based nonprofit that advances justice for and enhances the lives of children and youth through juvenile justice, child welfare, and related systems reform. In 2009, then ABA President Karen Mathis called on communities nationwide to host “Roundtable” discussions and engage stakeholders on topics related to at-risk youth. Under the leadership of retired Washington State Supreme Court Justice Bobbe Bridge, CCYJ’s Founding President and CEO, CCYJ responded to President Mathis’ call to action and identified military youth as the focal population for its roundtables.

In identifying military youth as the target population, CCYJ acknowledged the resilience of military youth but recognized that they are a potentially at-risk and often an invisible population. Washington State is home to over 65,000 Active Duty, Reserve and National Guard personnel from all branches of the military. The military lifestyle, more often than not, requires that youth cope with frequent relocation and persistent separation from deployed parents. The nearly 35,000 school-age military youth in Washington, like their peers across other states, face realities of modern conflict and the ever-increasing spans of time that they are without the guidance of significant family members.

To date, CCYJ has convened two roundtable sessions with an interdisciplinary and inter-jurisdictional group of stakeholders interested in crafting a collaborative, integrated response to the specific needs of these young people. Participants have included high ranking military servicemen and women, executive level representatives from philanthropic foundations, leaders from state government, judicial officers, direct service providers and state legislators. The goals of the first two roundtables were to:

  1. Gain a better understanding of the challenges posed to youth of military families who are at-risk of entering the juvenile justice or foster care systems;
  2. Develop processes to keep information on military youth, and programmatic/policy responses specific to their needs, updated and available;
  3. Identify gaps in services to military youth (e.g. the children of Guard, Reserve and veteran families); and
  4. Establish a long-term communications network.

Stakeholders at both roundtables recognized the unique needs of the population. Anecdotally, participants understood that teens in military families face many of the same stressors as their civilian counterparts and typically commit the same juvenile status offenses (e.g. truancy, curfew violation and underage drinking). These offenses are behavioral risk factors that can lead to delinquency, criminal misconduct, and entry into the juvenile justice system. While we are seeing an increase in military youth who are exhibiting these risk factors, we concurrently see that military families are facing an increasing prevalence of domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness. And what we know from our work with other populations is that these conditions lead to more children entering the child welfare and foster care systems.

The recent acquisition of data on school-age military youth has confirmed roundtable participants’ assumptions that military youth exhibit risk factors for systems involvement. Data from the Washington State Office of Public Instruction (OSPI) shows that a greater percentage of school-age military youth exhibit risk factors that are known precursors for systems involvement, or significant psychological distress, than their civilian counterparts. Some examples are: 

Alcohol Use. Research strongly suggests that early experimentation with alcohol can create a “gateway drug” dynamic. Youth who experiment with alcohol are at a higher risk for seeking out harder substances over time. According to 2010 OSPI survey data, military youth in the 10th grade were 4.2% more likely to consume alcohol than their non-military peers.

Attempted Suicide. Attempted suicide is a common indicator for depression, and is often a significant sign for other mental health complications. Roughly 3.1% more youth from military families reported attempting suicide at least once on the OSPI survey compared to non-military youth in 2010. Similar to the rates for alcohol use, the largest statistical variance is seen amongst 10th graders.

Poor Academic Performance. For purposes of the OSPI survey, poor academic performance was defined as having the majority of grades at either a C-point or below during a particular term. In 2010, over 35% of high school seniors from military families reported either failing or on the verge of failing academically. Poor academic performance or a general disinterest in school activities can be an early indicator for depression as well as other behavioral issues. This is particularly true for an increased rate of truancy, which can lead to an increase in the overall rate of delinquency. A recent study by the Rand Corporation matched soldiers’ deployment records with their children’s academic achievement and, on average, found lower scores among military children whose parents were cumulatively deployed for 19 months or more since 2001.

Physical Violence. Fighting is associated with anger and underlying psychological concerns, and is a strong precursor for violent behavior in adulthood. Military youth consistently reported higher rates of engaging in physical violence than civilian youth across all grade levels. Moreover, 8th graders that reported having either one or both parents actively deployed were 40.05% more likely to get in a physical fight at school than a non-deployed military youth. With such a significant increase in the rate of physical violence, there is a strong likelihood that, absent targeted interventions, this population would exhibit an increased rate of criminal misconduct and juvenile offenses.

Carrying a Weapon. In order to assess a student’s perceived sense of safety, the OSPI survey included a series of questions that pertained to carrying a weapon to school specifically for the purpose of self-protection. For grades 8, 10 and 12, the OSPI data identified military youth to be 6% more likely to carry a weapon to school for protection out of perceived fear of threat.

The OSPI survey confirms the experiences shared by the CCYJ Roundtable participants and demonstrates the correlation between military youth and risk factors for systems involvement. We face challenges in understanding the current paradigm that is leading military youth to become more at-risk. While anecdotal evidence shows that there are patterns amongst school-age military youth’s entry into the juvenile justice or child welfare systems, there is no empirical data to validate these observations. Data that better identifies where and how many youth are entering the juvenile justice and child welfare systems would allow the development of a system and community response that meets the needs of military youth.

Next Steps to Helping Military Youth

Research has shown that youth who have a supportive family, regardless of civilian or military affiliation, more easily overcome negative experiences.  Families who receive enhanced services feel supported and, in turn, tend to experience less deployment related stress overall.

Since November of 2010, CCYJ has been working with roundtable participants to identify and outline the target population with the help of the OSPI survey data as well as other credible sources; to collaborate with the American Bar Association and WSBA’s Legal Assistance for Military Personnel (LAMP) Committee to brainstorm potential improvements to service referral system; to pursue multi-system and interdisciplinary training opportunities; to secure funding for continued program development; and to continue to network and strengthen existing regional collaborations.

Primarily, CCYJ’s goal is to impact systems reform in a way that either prevents or deters military youth from entering the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. There is still a great deal of data to uncover and networking to be done in order to achieve this goal. However, by focusing on statistics for this particular population of at-risk youth, we hope to have a much higher success rate in connecting them with the appropriate services and necessary resources to effect change. On a local, state and national level, our community has an obligation to military youth. They have sacrificed their parental guidance at crucial developmental stages in their lives, so that their parent(s) may serve and safeguard ours. With system professionals working together, military and civilian partnerships and community engagement, these young people will no longer be invisible.

For more information on at-risk military youth and the work of the Center for Children and Youth Justice, visit

Bobbe J. Bridge is the founding president and CEO of the Center for Children and Youth Justice, a nonprofit organization to help reform Washington State's child welfare and juvenile justice systems. She is also chair of the Washington State Supreme Court Commission on Children in Foster Care.

Merina Bigley volunteers for the Center for Children and Youth Justice working to improve services for military youth. She also worked as an Advocate at King County Court Appointed Special Advocates Program.

Hathaway Burden is Projects Assistant at the Center for Children and Youth Justice bringing with her experience in advocacy, family court issues, and international social justice. She also worked with the ABA Rule of Law Initiative and the World Justice Project.