Despite Decline in Criminal Behavior, Young Adults Formerly in Care Arrested More than Peers

Young people transitioning from foster care to adulthood are at risk for numerous negative outcomes including criminal behavior and justice-system involvement. Data from the Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth (Midwest Study) suggest that youth in foster care, like their peers, are less likely to engage in criminal behavior as they move into adulthood. Further, there are few differences in self-reported criminal behavior between youth in foster care and their peers after age 18. Youth in foster care, though, are still more likely than their peers to be arrested.

What we did

The Midwest Study followed more than 700 young people from Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois as they aged out of foster care and transitioned to adulthood. Participants were surveyed at age 17 or 18, 19, 21, 23 or 24, and 26 about a range of experiences including education, employment, housing, justice system involvement, and physical and mental health.

We compared the prevalence of self-reported criminal behaviors and arrests among Midwest Study participants at ages 17 or 18, 19, and 21 to the prevalence of self-reported criminal behaviors and arrests among a nationally representative sample of their peers using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health). We also estimated regression models to examine the effect of out-of-home care experiences and social bonds on self-reported criminal behavior and the risk for arrest.

What we found

Comparisons between the Midwest Study and Add Health Study self-reports revealed that:

  • Midwest Study participants were more likely to report having engaged in a wide range of criminal behaviors at age 17 or 18 than their Add Health counterparts.
  • Those differences were much smaller at ages 19 and 21, and both groups reported engaging in less criminal behavior overall.
  • Midwest Study participants were much more likely to report having been arrested than their Add Health study peers, and this difference was much bigger than the difference in self-reported criminal behaviors.

Our multivariate analyses of self-reported criminal behaviors and official arrest records revealed that:

  • Placement instability was a strong predictor of violent and non-violent criminal behavior, and group care placement was a strong predictor of violent criminal behavior.
  • Placement instability and group care placement were also associated with a significant increase in the risk for arrest, even after controlling for prior behavior problems.
  • Social bonds—as measured by closeness to parents or adult caregivers—had little effect on self-reported criminal behavior.
  • African American participants were at greater risk for being arrested, even though they did not report more criminal behavior.

What it means

Although the difference in self-reported criminal behavior between youth making the transition from foster care to adult and their peers largely disappears after age 18, the former are still more likely to be arrested. This is especially true for African American youth, which raises concerns about differential treatment of African American youth by law enforcement. Additionally, greater attention should be paid to reducing placement instability and group care placements, since both are predictors of self-reported criminal behavior and arrests, and to better addressing the needs of young people in group care.

Recommended Citation
Cusick, G.R., Courtney, M.E., Havlicek, J., & Hess, N. (2011). Crime during the Transition to Adulthood: How Youth Fare as They Leave Out-of-Home Care. Chicago: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago
Download Report