Delinquent and antisocial youth in child welfare

Introduction & Population of Interest

Juvenile delinquency has been a concern for people throughout societies both past and present. Moreover, evidence from scientific study has begun to reveal an increasingly clearer connection between various individual, family, and , antisocial and delinquent behavior in youth, and later chronic adult crime (NRC, 2001; Pereira & Maia, 2017). Along this through-line, the risk of negative outcomes across various domains in adulthood begins to mount. As such, the concern over juvenile delinquency is not simply a criminal matter, but a social, economic, and public health consideration as well.

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This paper will address a specific population of interest within the field of child welfare: delinquent and antisocial youth. The age group discussed will encompass the adolescent phase of childhood, being defined as age 12-17, and the types of behavior that will be referenced most frequently may include: criminal offending (e.g., shoplifting, vandalism, assault, etc.), physical aggression, truancy, and substance use. It should be noted that this paper will cast less focus on extremely violent youth such as ones that commit acts of homicide or violent sexual assault as these youth are less likely to be appropriate for the types of interventions discussed later in the Evidence-based Practices section of this text. The term delinquent will be used to refer to a youth who has engaged in behavior that would be considered criminal were it to be deliberated in the adult justice system. Given that some of the aforementioned conduct problems may or may not involve illegal activity, the term antisocial will also be used regularly to refer to youth who exhibit chronic, serious, or violent conduct problems.

Scope of the Problem

Delinquent and antisocial youth have been a subject of study for many decades. Generally speaking, youth who routinely display pervasive and dysfunctional behaviors of concern are often referred to simply as antisocial, deviant, or misbehaving. When it comes to more serious offenders, the term delinquent has been used consistently across the literature to refer to criminally behaving youth ever since the juvenile justice system was established as distinct and separate from adult criminal justice (NRC, 2001). In the United States and Western societies overall, the age of adult criminal responsibility usually ranges between 16 and 18 years old (Pereira & Maia, 2017). There is an additional category of crimes that affects only youth which are referred to as status offenses. These are acts that are considered unlawful due to the age of the offender (e.g. curfew violations, running away, etc.) (NRC, 2001). Typically, the minimum age of adjudication for a juvenile delinquent in the United States is 10 years old (NRC, 2001).

Getting accurate information regarding the number of antisocial and delinquent youth can be challenging due to several factors. All juvenile criminal offenders have by nature engaged in antisocial behavior but not all antisocial behavior is criminal. Therefore, attempting to complete a headcount of antisocial and behaviorally challenging youth inevitably focuses largely on delinquents, missing the nuanced forms of antisocial behavior that may never manifest criminally. There are multiple potential sources of data within juvenile crime research, each of which come with benefits and limitations. Nationally available data tends to exist in one of two forms: (1) self-report surveys where youth report their own involvement in crime either as an offender or a victim and (2) official records such as arrest data and court records (Williams, Tuthill, & Lio 2008). The picture provided by each of these sources differs unsurprisingly.

Even so, it is possible to come to an imprecise understanding of the basic demographic characteristics of delinquent and antisocial youth. Previous research has shown that while both males and females engage in delinquent and antisocial behavior, males tend to be engaged in more serious and violent offenses as well as a greater number and frequency of offenses across all age groups (Huizinga, Weiher, Espiritu, & Esbensen, 2003). Regarding age, research has found there is a predictable age curve for delinquent behavior where delinquency begins to rise in early adolescence, reaches a peak in late adolescence, and fades away throughout young adulthood (NRC, 2001; Huizinga et al., 2003). This trend has remained stable over time and across cultural contexts (NRC, 2001). Considering ethnicity, Huizinga et al. (2003) note that there are no discernible differences in the prevalence of delinquency between different ethnic groups throughout childhood. This begins to shift in adolescence due to greater numbers of minority (Black, Latinx, and other people of color [POC]) children being involved in street offenses (Huizinga et al., 2003, p. 53). However, the authors go on to indicate that these rates of increase are modest and that serious or violent criminal acts remain the exception for juvenile offenders and not the norm. Additionally, it should be noted that there are evident considerations of systemic inequality, racial profiling, and bias that likely contribute to statistical findings that reflect increased criminality in these populations of youth and adults.

There are a number of individual, family, and that research has associated with antisocial behavior and delinquency. It should be noted that association, as presented by scientific research, is not the same thing as causation and as such should not be considered to be predictive. Although evidence-informed projections are important for things like allocating resources or policy creation, research has found that extrapolation of juvenile crime trends has been historically imprecise at best, and at times misleading and inaccurate (NRC, 2001). When considering the various elements associated with antisocial behavior and delinquency, the reader is cautioned to recognize them as commonly observed risk factors and not prophetic.

Individual risk factors that contribute to the development of antisocial behavior are often understood in developmental terms. Deficits in areas such as executive functioning, sensitivity to social cues, and problem-solving skills have been associated with antisocial or aggressive behavior as has delayed linguistic development (NRC, 2001). As many children begin school and come into increased contact with other peers their age, most have established foundational communication skills and the ability to get what they want or solve problems without employing physical aggression. By contrast, those who are oppositional or show limited prosocial behaviors with peers are at an increased risk of experiencing peer rejection, performing poorly in school, and developing antisocial and delinquent behavioral patterns throughout childhood. Mental health diagnoses such as conduct disorder and ADHD have also been associated with elevated risk for developing antisocial or aggressive behavior (NRC, 2001).

Family level factors that may contribute to the development of antisocial behavior and delinquency typically originate in family structure and functioning. For example, being raised in a single-parent household has been connected to an increased risk of delinquency in youth (NRC, 2001). When viewed in isolation, this relationship fails to account for broader community-level risk factors such as poverty that can play an additional role in youth development of antisocial or delinquent behavior. That said, single parents may struggle to provide consistent supervision or discipline for their children. Additionally, if the single parent structure has occurred due to parental divorce or separation it may be possible for the youth to develop an adverse relationship with one or both caregivers and for familial conflict to complicate healthy social-emotional development. In their seminal text on Multisystemic Therapy (MST), Henggeler and colleagues (2009) point to each of these as family level correlates of antisocial behavior in adolescents in addition to other fairly intuitive risk factors such as parental substance use, mental health concerns, or neglect (p. 8). Broader community-level risk factors may include the availability of weapons or drugs within the family neighborhood, routine violence in the community, and youth association with other substance-using or delinquent peers, amongst others (Henggeler et al., 2009; NRC, 2001).

It was once the perspective of the broader research community that antisocial or delinquent behavior had little direct impact on an individuals future beyond potential legal consequences. This perception has been revised in response to contemporary scientific studies of epidemiology, sociology, and child welfare. We now understand that physical aggression in youth can impact later parenting practices, that delinquent behavior impacts social and educational wellbeing, all of which contribute to patently poorer outcomes in adulthood (Krohn & Thornberry, 2003). In addition to this, continued study of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) has helped us to develop a clearer understanding of the pervasive and generational consequences of childhood exposure to violence and other traumatic events. All of these considerations have implications for how we think about and address antisocial and delinquent behavior in youth.


In the United States, a separate and distinct juvenile justice system has existed for well over 100 years. The manner in which this system functions has unsurprisingly shifted on many occasions in response to the research communities changing understanding of juvenile delinquency as well as to public perceptions and concerns over youthful offending (NRC, 2001; Williams, Tuthill, & Lio, 2008). The juvenile justice system, its policies and practices, and the research literature have long operated in tension between the competing goals of social welfare and social control (NRC, 2001). In many ways, our modern understanding and experience of the juvenile justice system is rooted in shifts that began in the 1980s and 1990s.

It is important to note that the United States has many state and local juvenile justice systems, not one nationally unified vision for how to address youth crime and antisocial behavior (NRC, 2001). The original ambition for the creation of a juvenile justice approach was to divert young offenders away from the exacting punishments of adult criminal courts. Rehabilitation was considered a more viable option and a greater priority for youth. Alongside this public approach, there have been numerous treatments developed by social scientists to intervene and prevent juvenile delinquency and antisocial behavior from negatively impacting the lives of youth and their surrounding communities.

Henggeler et al. (2009) note that prior to the 1970s, many of these treatments lacked robust empirical support and were too often focused on a narrow subset of risk factors known or thought to be associated with antisocial behavior and delinquency. Thus, outcomes for delinquent youth and trends in youthful offending (violent and non-violent) continued to fluctuate over time, reaching a peak in the early 1990s and declining steadily into the 2000s with a slight upturn into the 2010s (Williams, Tuthill, & Lio, 2008).

Legislation & Policy

Despite the precipitous increase in theoretically grounded and scientifically supported social interventions for delinquent and antisocial youth beginning in the 1970s, high profile incidents of youth crime and a seemingly uncontrollable swell of violence through the 1980s and early 1990s profoundly shaped public perceptions and fears about juvenile delinquency in the United States. In response, many state legislators across the country overwhelmingly moved towards a stiffening of punitive approaches to young offenders.

Federal Legislation

Though many of the policy changes that make up the current portrait of juvenile justice in the United States took place in the 1990s or later, the most pertinent federal legislation regarding juvenile delinquency originated in the early 1970s. The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) was originally signed into law in 1974 and was founded on four core mandates: (1) the deinstitutionalization of status offenses (i.e., not making status offenses eligible for detention sentences), (2) removal of adolescents from adult detention facilities, (3) sight and sound separation of juvenile offenders from any facilities that house adult offenders, and (4) reducing racial and ethnic disproportionality in juvenile justice approaches (NRC, 2001; CJJ, n.d.). This act has been the foundation of a long-standing effort at maintaining the original spirit of the juvenile justice approach in the United States. By reducing or removing options that allow juvenile delinquents to be treated as adult offenders, the mandates of the JJDPA sought to ensure appropriate diversion of youth away from adult criminal proceedings and into preventative and rehabilitative practices. To this end, the JJDPA was most recently reauthorized in 2018 by broad, bipartisan support.

Also in 2018, the federal government passed the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) intending to change the way Title IV-E funds can be spent by state governments and local governments. Through the FFPSA, states, territories, and tribes with an approved plan have the option to use Title IV-E funds for up to 12 months of prevention services that would allow candidates for foster care to stay in their homes with parents or relatives (NCSL, 2019). In order to be approved, prevention service plans must be trauma-informed and services need to be evidence-based. These evidence-based practices are approved by the Administration of Children and Families (ACF) and housed on the newly created Title IV-E Prevention Services Clearinghouse (

State Legislation

Despite the intentions of federal legislation such as the JJDPA, many state and local jurisdictions moved towards a stiffening of punitive approaches to young offenders. Most often this was done by making it easier to transfer juveniles to adult court, changing sentencing structures, and modifying or removing traditional confidentiality provisions (NRC, 2001). For example, many states changed minimum and maximum ages of jurisdiction to more tightly define who could be considered juvenile when it comes to matters of criminal responsibility. In many states, including Missouri, juvenile jurisdiction only applies through age 16. This means that any individual 17 or older who commits a criminal offense may be tried in adult criminal court. The maximum age of juvenile jurisdiction in Kansas is 17. A further example of this power expansion lies in the transfer mechanisms that allow judges to use their discretion to waive juvenile court jurisdiction in special cases such as serious offenses, having an extensive prior record with the juvenile court, and being near the maximum age limit. Juvenile judges have always had the capacity to waive jurisdiction in specific scenarios, however, beginning in the 1990s, many states created provisions that greatly expanded judicial discretion for this purpose. Missouri and Kansas are amongst 42 other states and the District of Columbia which did so (NRC, 2001).

Local Policy

Despite the roll-backs in juvenile protections at the state level, there are local strategies specific to the Kansas City metro area that provide opportunities to successful diversion of juveniles away from more formal courts. One such program is the Kansas City Youth Court, hosted by the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) School of Law in partnership with the Kansas City Police Department (KCPD) and the Jackson County Family Court (Family Court). The Kansas City Youth Court acts as a diversion from the traditional juvenile justice system in the form of a peer court. Delinquents can have their cases heard in youth court where they are represented, prosecuted, and judged by juveniles. The court is administered and overseen by adults who are present at hearings (UMKC, n.d.). Youth court programs also exist in other jurisdictions locally such as Lees Summit, Grandview, and Independence as well as Olathe, Johnson County, and Topeka in the state of Kansas (NAYC, n.d.).

Evidence-based Practices

Every day, people in the United States seek help for youth who exhibit pervasive antisocial and delinquent behavior. While some rise to a level of severity that requires a significant juvenile justice response, many can benefit from participation in empirically supported prevention and/or treatment programs. Fulfilling the original intention of the juvenile justice approach, these practices are at their core an attempt to answer the apparent question: what works to change the course of antisocial and delinquent youth? Evidence-based practice, as a process and as a type of treatment model, exists as the integration of the best research evidence, clinical expertise, theoretical foundation, and client values (Bertram & Kerns, 2019; IOM, 2001). While there are now several evidence-based treatment models that have demonstrated efficacy in treating antisocial and delinquent youth, this text will focus on three of the most well supported and studied practices: Multisystemic Therapy (MST), Functional Family Therapy (FFT), and Brief Strategic Family Therapy (BSFT). Each practice model will be presented through a brief overview of the program that also identifies the models target population, theory base(s), theory of change, and program goals. Outcomes from formative and relevant research studies will be briefly summarized and discussed. Additionally, this text will identify the programs rating on two separate evidence-based practice databases: the for Child Welfare (CEBC) and Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development (Blueprints).

The CEBC uses a rating scale (1-5) to evaluate each practice model based on the available research evidence. A lower score indicates a greater level of research support with a rating of 1 or 2 indicating that the practice can be referred to as an evidence-based treatment model, a rating of 3 indicating that the treatment model displays promising effectiveness, and a rating of 4 or 5 indicating that the treatment model is actively counterproductive or harmful and therefore should be avoided (CEBC, n.d.). Blueprints maintains a list of treatment models that are rated as either Promising, Model, or Model Plus. Promising models meet their minimum standards of certification which notably include the requirement of at least one randomized controlled trial (RCT) or two quasiexperimental design (QED) evaluations. Model programs meet all of the same standards but have been subject to two RCTs or one RCT and one QED. Model Plus programs have satisfied an additional standard of independent replication meaning that at least one high-quality study demonstrating desired outcomes has been conducted by a researcher who is neither a current or past member of the developers research team and who has no financial interest in the program (Blueprints, n.d.).

Multisystemic Therapy (MST)

Program Overview.MST is an intensive family and community-based treatment model for antisocial and delinquent youth between the ages 12-17 who display chronic, serious, and violent conduct problems and substance use (CEBC, 2018b; Henggeler et al., 2009). MST is grounded in social-ecological and systems theories. Interventions delivered through this model are grounded in a research-based, that is supplemented by visual aids, practitioner supervision, and rigorous quality assurance/fidelity mechanisms (Henggeler et al., 2009). Two primary assumptions make up the MST theory of change: (1) that adolescent behaviors of concerns are driven by the interplay between risk factors associated with the multiple systems in which the youth lives and (2) that caregivers are typically the main conduit of behavioral change in youth. Holding these presumptions together, the primary aim of MST is to diminish or eliminate the prevalence of risk factors across multiple systems (i.e. family, school, community) so that behaviors of concern will diminish or be eliminated as well. This is ultimately accomplished by surrounding the youth and the family in a context of indigenous (i.e., extended family, neighbors, etc.) support that encourages prosocial behavior (Henggeler et al., 2009). MST has achieved a level 1 rating through the CEBC and has achieved the status of a Model Plus program from Blueprints.

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