Crime during the Transition to Adulthood: How Youth Fare as They Leave Out-of-Home Care
The transition to adulthood has become a more ambiguous and complex period for all youth, yet it may be particularly difficult for youth aging out of the child welfare system. Whereas many youth move gradually toward independent adulthood, foster youth “aging out” of care lose the support of the child welfare system when they reach a particular age of majority, during a period when they may be particularly at risk for engagement in crime.
We examined criminal behavior and criminal justice system involvement among a sample of 732 youth transitioning from out-of-home care to adulthood across three states. Using survey data, we first compared bivariate statistics of foster youth to a national sample of same aged peers to examine whether offending patterns during the early transition to adulthood differ from those of the general population. Next we conducted a series of regression analyses to examine the importance of earlier experiences with maltreatment and within the child welfare system and of social bonds on criminal behavior and arrest.
Findings suggest that foster youth, like their peers, engage in less crime over time as they move into adulthood. While foster youth report more crime than their peers as they approach the transition, by age 19 and 21 there are few differences between the groups. However, foster youth remain much more likely than their peers to be arrested.
Our findings show that placement in group care is a strong predictor of criminal behavior and arrest. This suggests that efforts to prevent crime among foster youth transitioning to adulthood are well targeted at those in group care. That placement instability is associated with later crime may not be surprising, but it calls for renewed efforts to minimize the instability that all too often characterizes the lives of those in care.
Finally, our findings on the relationship between social bonds and crime suggest that more attention ought to be given to understanding how child welfare agencies assist older foster children navigate relationships with their biological parents and extended families. Contrary to findings for vulnerable populations which suggest a close and caring relationship with at least one adult is an important protective factor, this study suggests a greater understanding of the multiple bonds former foster youth have with individuals and their communities is needed. While we found limited support that closeness of foster youth to their parents was related to crime, we found stronger evidence that the absence of a parent increased the risk.