Vol. 18, No. 2 • May 2014

Tips for Preventing Delinquent Behavior

by Trishana Jones and John McMahon

Children and youth in foster care are capable of accomplishing amazing things. Unfortunately, they can also engage in negative behaviors. This can be challenging, especially when these behaviors cross the line into delinquency.

As a foster parent or kinship caregiver, you know that in the end it is up to the children and teens in your home to control their own behavior. But you can have tremendous influence. This article suggests ways to use that influence to reduce the chances a young person in your home will break the law.

A delinquent act is a criminal act committed by a young person under the age of 16. Delinquent acts include drug offenses and crimes by young people against persons, property, and public order.

Delinquent acts by youth, such as theft, assault on others, or property damage, can lead to the young person's long-term involvement in the juvenile justice system and to drug use, dropping out of school, incarceration, adult criminal behavior, and injury.

Four Types of Risk Factors
Because it leads to such bad results for young people and for society, a lot of research has been done to understand the causes of delinquency. In summarizing this research, the National Conference of State Legislatures (2011) concludes that delinquent behavior occurs in part due to the interaction of four types of risk factors:

  1. Individual risk factors that include antisocial behavior at a young age, poor cognitive development, hyperactivity, and emotional factors such as mental health challenges.
  2. Family risk factors linked to delinquent behavior include poverty, maltreatment (includes neglect), family violence, divorce, parental psychopathology, familial antisocial behaviors, teenage parenthood, single parent family, and large family size.
  3. Peer risk factors that include rejection by peers and association with peers who break the law and get into trouble. Having a delinquent peer group is the strongest risk factor for delinquency during the pre-teen years.
  4. School and community risk factors for delinquency include low commitment to school, poor academic performance, low academic aspirations, disorganized neighborhoods, concentration of delinquent peer groups, and access to weapons.

These risk factors may overlap. In some instances the presence of one risk factor contributes to existence of others (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2011).

Preventing Youth from "Crossing Over"

Youth in foster care who become involved with the juvenile justice system are sometimes referred to as "dually-involved" or "crossover" youth. To prevent dual involvement, child welfare professionals, foster parents, group care providers, law enforcement, and others should take steps to prevent juveniles from getting arrested in the first place.

For example, child welfare agencies should make an effort to ensure schools know that the youth is in foster care. This will allow school resource officers and other officials to make informed decisions that are in the best interest of the youth and other parties involved.

Avoiding the placement of youth in group homes may also prevent a youth from crossing over to the juvenile justice system. When placement in a group setting is necessary, make sure the home's providers are trained in trauma-informed care and de-escalation approaches, which provide alternatives to calling law enforcement for less serious incidents (p. 49).

Adapted from Herz, et al., 2012

As you read this list of risk factors you will likely see a number--for example poverty and child abuse and neglect--that are common among children and youth in foster care. Don't panic. The presence of a risk factor is no guarantee delinquency will occur. Most children in foster care never break the law. However, youth with risk factors do need extra support from those who care about them.

Protective Factors
While there are no magic solutions for preventing delinquency, understanding and building up protective factors is a good place to start. Protective factors are traits or experiences that help counteract risk factors. According to the Center for the Study of Social Policy and the Administration on Children, Youth and Families (2013), these protective factors may reduce the likelihood of delinquent behavior:

  1. Youth resilience. "Resilience is the process of managing stress and functioning well even when faced with adversity and trauma" (CSSP, n.d.). Hallmarks of youth resilience include: hopefulness, spirituality, positive view of self, overall positive attitude, trust in others, sense of empowerment, realistic belief in one's ability to succeed, motivation, sense of purpose, positive future orientation, and taking responsibility for oneself.
  2. Social connectedness. Connections to people and institutions help youth increase knowledge and skills, have a sense of belonging, and find meaning in their lives (CSSP, n.d.). Signs of social connectedness include: warm, supportive relationships with parents and other adults; friends who disapprove of antisocial behavior; attends religious services; committed to school; does well in school; extracurricular activities; positive school climate.
  3. Concrete support. Youth in foster care need concrete support and services that address their needs and help minimize stress. Youth have concrete support when social workers, foster parents, and others take steps to ensure they receive basic necessities as well as specialized academic, psychoeducational, health, mental health, legal, and/or employment services (CSSP, n.d.).
  4. Cognitive and social emotional competence. Developing competence in these areas lays the foundation for forming an independent identity and having a productive, responsible, and satisfying adulthood. Signs that youth have cognitive and social emotional competence include: realistic belief in one's ability to succeed, spirituality, personal goals, self-esteem, thinking about consequences of one's behavior, kindness to oneself when confronted with personal failings and suffering, and personal strengths (e.g., hard work, gratitude, respect, integrity) (CSSP, n.d.).

What You Can Do
So if you are caring for a child or youth who has risk factors for delinquency, what should you do?

Connect with your child. Building a strong relationship takes time and effort but pays rich dividends: a caring, supportive relationship with an adult is the single most important protective factor for children who have experienced maltreatment.

Be clear about rules and expectations. In a friendly, clear way, explain to children in your home what you expect of them. Hold family members accountable consistently and respectfully. Respond to misbehavior in a way that is proportionate. For example, unless there is imminent danger, if a child's behavior becomes unruly your first call should be to the child's social worker, not law enforcement.

Build your behavior management skills. Due to past trauma, children in foster care sometimes have difficulty behaving appropriately. Teaching them to manage their own behavior will help them succeed in life and stay out of trouble. There are many resources to help you learn to do this, including this article from Fostering Perspectives: http://fosteringperspectives.org/fpv18n1/Phipps.htm.

Increase your knowledge and understanding of adolescent development. This is particularly important given the recent advances in the fields of neuroscience and developmental psychology. What you know affects how you interpret teen behavior and how you respond. To begin expanding what you know on this topic, click here.

Know where your child is and who they're with. Make your home a place your child's friends want to be. This will help you monitor what's going on and get to know the friends.

Don't go it alone. Have frequent, candid conversations with your child's social worker and your licensing social worker about your parenting successes and concerns. This is important. They want to be sure the child is getting his needs met and is staying out of trouble. Supporting you is one of the best ways to achieve these goals.

Be informed, supportive, and present. This is especially important when it comes to your child's school, any therapy or treatment they receive, and extracurricular activities.

Extracurricular Activities
Extracurriculars are a good way to support a youth's protective factors and keep them out of activities they should avoid. However, in the past fees have been a barrier to enrolling youth in extracurriculars. Now there are resources out there to help:

  • County DSS Agencies. NC Administrative Code (section 10A NCAC 71R .0907, Foster Care Services For Children), makes it clear that counties "may pay for resource items to support the child's participation in school. Resource items include supplies, special clothes, and fees for membership in school sponsored extracurricular activities." Check with your county DSS to see if resources are available for the youth in your home.
  • NC LINKS Program. If you are a caregiver of a youth age 13 or older in DSS custody, ask your social worker to connect you with the child's LINKS worker--there may be money available to support the youth's involvement in extracurricular activities. To learn more about NC LINKS, go to http://www.ncdhhs.gov/dss/links/.
  • Local Guardian ad Litem (GAL) offices. In some districts, GAL volunteers have formed nonprofit 501(c)(3) organizations that may have funding available to support the costs of extracurricular activities. Contact your child's GAL or local GAL office for more information.

We hope this information can help you connect youth to extracurricular activities, enriching their potential and keeping them on the right track.

Trishana Jones is the Children and Youth Specialist for the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence. John McMahon is editor of Fostering Perspectives.

A Framework for Promoting Youth Well-Being

Exposure to violence and maltreatment, lack of consistent or nurturing relationships, and involvement in foster care or juvenile justice can seriously interfere with a young person's transition to adulthood. To help us promote the well-being of youth who face these challenges, the Center for the Study of Social Policy has developed YouthThrive, a research-based framework focused on:

Youth resilience
Social connections
Knowledge of adolescent development
Concrete support in times of need
Cognitive and social-emotional competence in youth

Taken together, these protective and promotive factors increase the probability of positive, adaptive, and healthy outcomes, even in the face of risk and adversity. To learn more about YouthThrive, go to www.cssp.org/reform/child-welfare/youth-thrive. Don't miss "Protective & Promotive Factors Defined" on the right side of the page.

To view references cited in this and other articles in this issue, click here.

~ Family and Children's Resource Program, UNC-CH School of Social Work ~