First Response Systems

Section 2.6

Child Welfare, Juvenile Justice and Runaway and Homeless Youth Systems Should Implement Responses to Alleged Status Behaviors that Aim to Avoid Court Involvement and are Tailored to the Reasons the Youth and Family Have Been Referred to the Child Welfare, Juvenile Justice or Runaway and Homeless Youth System

One of the most important things a professional can do when first responding to an alleged status offense is make reasonable efforts to learn the cause for the youth’s contact with the agency. These responders may often come into contact with youth who are alleged to have run away from home or to be out of their parent’s control or “ungovernable.” Using valid and reliable screening instruments and understanding the key risk factors correlated to these behaviors is critical to helping identify and respond to the behaviors appropriately.

Agencies’ first responses must be tailored to the reason the youth and family have been referred to them to adequately respond to the youth’s and family’s needs.  

For example, research has shown that running away from home is predicted by greater depression symptoms than peers, lack of parental support, school disengagement and heavier substance use.1  Research on the contributing factors of ungovernable behavior has focused largely on the dynamics between a child and his or her family.  Parental behavior, discipline practices and the presence of supportive, caring adults all affect whether a child may exhibit behaviors that may be deemed ungovernable.  While most children exhibit some emotional or social problems as they enter adolescence, the majority of these behaviors are normal developmental milestones.  In some cases, however, poor relational dynamics with parent or mental or physical health problems predict unruly behavior.  Alcohol or drug use can be the cause of a child’s ‘out of control’ behavior, as can untreated (or improperly treated) personality or other mental health disorders that often first appear in adolescence.2

Based on these research findings, agencies’ first responses must be tailored to the reason the youth and family have been referred to them to adequately respond to the youth’s and family’s needs.  If school disengagement, for example, is the reason the child has run away, addressing the child’s academic needs is paramount to avoiding repeat running episodes.  If a youth is beyond his or her parents’ control because of a substance abuse problem, conducting an assessment and implementing substance abuse services will be the only way to start to resolve the problem.  

How child welfare, juvenile justice and runaway/homeless youth agencies first respond to youth will vary from community to community depending on state laws, agency policies and available resources.  However, all professionals providing an initial response to an alleged status offense should:    

  • Seek to identify the reason the youth and family has been referred to the agency, which may include the use of valid and reliable screening or assessment tools.
  • Consider whether any status offense system involvement is needed or (particularly in first-time, low risk cases) the family and youth would be better served if the system took no action and simply provided the family with a list of community resources.
  • Develop a safety and service plan with the child and family that they can implement voluntarily and with which they can reasonably comply.
  • Utilize the least restrictive alternatives when considering appropriate service or placement referrals, such as in-home services or limited respite care or a cooling off period, where appropriate.
  • Keep in mind what the long term goal is for the youth and family when making service referrals or implementing a service or safety plan.

First responder agencies should be particularly cognizant of instances where adolescents are referred to them because of status behaviors, when in fact the youth is a victim of abuse or neglect.  Utilizing intake procedures that take sufficient time to assess the reason behind the referral will help identify abuse or neglect.  Too often it is difficult for older youth to access child welfare services, and some confidentiality and service delivery policies and practices are not favorable to older youth who report abuse or neglect.  Incentivizing youth to participate in the intake process and providing age appropriate assessments and services will help professionals identify the adolescent’s true needs and access the proper assistance without improperly labeling and treating him or her as an offender.   

1 Tucker, Joan et al (2011) “A Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Risk Factors and Young Adult Outcomes.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence 40 (5), p. 507-518.

2 Development Services Group. (2009) Ungovernable/Incorrigible Youth Literature Review. Developed for the Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.  Available at: