March | April 2019

Research Central: OJJDP Releases Findings From Study on Dual System Youth

Youth who have been involved with both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems—commonly known as “dual system youth”—often are not recognized and do not receive services targeted to their individual needs because of challenges in cross-system communication and collaboration. In an effort to address these challenges, in 2015 OJJDP launched a data collection and analysis project, the Dual System Youth Design Study, led by Denise Herz, Ph.D., and Carly Dierkhising, Ph.D., of California State University, Los Angeles.

The project aimed to:

  • Identify successes, challenges, and best practice models in cross-system collaboration.
  • Describe key characteristics of dual system youth (e.g., race, gender, timing and type of encounters with the two systems) and propose a method to produce a national estimate of these youth.

To identify best practices in cross-system collaboration, the researchers reviewed data from sites participating in the Georgetown University Center for Juvenile Justice Reform’s Crossover Youth Practice Model. The top three practices used in developing cross-system collaboration were early identification of dual involvement, improved information sharing across the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, and coordinated case supervision across the two systems. Positive outcomes among jurisdictions using these collaborative practices included fewer petitions at the 9-month followup and increased youth involvement in prosocial activities.

This portion of the study also produced the OJJDP Best Practices for Dual System Youth Rubric, which provides an inventory and description of best practices that can be used across jurisdictions and provides a baseline for jurisdictions to assess their level of cross-system collaboration. The rubric identifies 11 essential categories of practice that are critical to collaboration and provides a tool for jurisdictions to use in determining where they fall on the spectrum for each area of practice. The rubric enables jurisdictions to identify areas for further development and improvement.

To learn more about the prevalence and characteristics of dual system youth, researchers focused on three geographical areas—Cuyahoga County, OH; Cook County, IL; and New York City—that had the capacity to electronically “link” data from child welfare and juvenile justice administrative records. The researchers found that among a cohort sample of youth adjudicated in juvenile court, a high percentage were dual system youth: 44.8 percent in Cook County, 68.5 percent in Cuyahoga County, and 70.3 percent in New York City. The analysis confirmed existing data that show that involvement with the child welfare system typically precedes contact with the juvenile justice system.

Dual system youth had higher rates of overrepresentation of African Americans and a higher proportion of females than youth who had been involved only in the child welfare or juvenile justice system. Dual system youth also had longer histories in the child welfare system, more placements, and higher rates of recidivism than youth who had been involved in only one system. In addition, these youth more commonly had contact with additional systems (e.g., criminal justice system, shelter care, public assistance) in young adulthood compared to their peers who had been involved in only one system.

One of the core goals of the Dual System Youth Design Study was to propose a method for developing a national estimate. The researchers concluded that the best way to accomplish this goal is to use linked data from a “representative” sample of states and jurisdictions (a sample that can be generalized to create an accurate national estimate). The inconsistent quality of child welfare data and the limited availability of juvenile justice data across states and jurisdictions present a major challenge to achieving this goal. The study includes specific recommendations for systematically assessing the quality and availability of child welfare and juvenile justice data, and using this knowledge to derive a representative sample. In addition, the researchers offer policy and practice recommendations to more efficiently integrate the services and information resources of the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.


A summary of the Dual System Youth Design Study is available on the OJJDP website.

For information on the study findings, visit the website of the OJJDP-supported National Criminal Justice Reference Service.