Alternatives to Confinement

Section 3.7

Judicial Officers Should Assess Alternatives to Out-of-home Placement or Secure Confinement

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Research has shown that secure confinement leads to poorer outcomes and future delinquent and criminal behavior (see Section 3.8).  Similarly, out-of-home placements deprive youth of the opportunity to resolve their issues in a familiar and supportive environment.  When considering a request or recommendation for out-of-home placement, judicial officers must ensure that service providers have made reasonable efforts to avoid out-of-home placements or secure confinement for youth in status offense cases.  In making this assessment the court should ask:

  • If the child is Indian, and if so if the  Indian Child Welfare Act’s guidance regarding placements has been complied with (e.g., placement in the least restrictive setting possible and in Indian homes).  See Section 3.2 for more information.
  • If the agency or service provider understands and is working to overcome the cause of the status offense referral.
  • Whether systemic issues or other failures to provide appropriate services have kept the case in court unnecessarily.
  • If all appropriate other systems that should be involved have been, e.g. child welfare, mental health, education.
  • If all community-based alternatives have been explored and attempted if appropriate and whether the child has received individualized treatment/service plans before contemplating out-of-home placement.

If all nonresidential options have been exhausted and the court is considering out-of-home placement the judge should assess whether respite care or simply approving certain locations (e.g., the home of a relative or friend agreed to by the youth and his or her parents) as respite care options would provide the family and child resolution to the issues they face.  Allowing the youth and family to take needed breaks without designating the youth as running away or violating court orders may supplant the need for a longer out-of-home placement arrangement.1 In rare cases, youth may require temporary, specialized residential treatment programs to address complex trauma, severe mental health needs and substance use disorders.  When they are needed, residential treatment programs should be short-term placements that provide gender-specific, trauma-informed services and that include the youth’s family and other caregivers into their treatment, recovery and prompt re-integration into an appropriate family-like setting. 

A young person should never be placed in a residential treatment facility as a default when more appropriate placement options are not readily available.  Prior to any approval of a residential placement, there should be a multi-disciplinary team meeting to consult with the young person, their family and other caregivers, as appropriate, their case workers, and any other relevant mental health or other treatment specialists.  Once approved, the continuing need for residential treatment should be re-evaluated frequently and appropriate supports provided to ensure the youth’s successful re-integration into family and community settings.

All measures must be taken by the court to avoid out-of home placement and particularly secure confinement in status offense cases. 


When a longer term out-of home placement is required, youth charged with noncriminal status offenses should be able to stay in home-like settings that ensure safety and provide appropriate services and supports to address their unique needs.  Child welfare systems use many types of alternatives to congregate and group care settings that may be appropriate for youth charged with status offenses including kinship care (placement with relatives), family foster care provided by non-relatives, treatment foster care (by families with special training on youth’s medical or mental health needs) or shared family care (a placement where both parent and child live with a supportive family who can provide mentoring and support).2

All measures must be taken by the court to avoid out-of home placement and particularly secure confinement in status offense cases.  Even when all of the above options have been exhausted, there are still many proven alternatives to confinement for youth charged with low level or status offenses.  These include reporting centers, which are nonresidential treatment facilities where youth report at set frequencies, either at night or during the day and “intensive supervision programs,” which also require regular in person check ins and offer youth needed services, but have stricter monitoring.3  Foster care placements, ideally with foster families that have specifically been recruited and trained to work with youth offenders, can also provide an alternative to secure confinement. 

1 Smith, T.J. “Post-Adjudication Strategies for Defending Juveniles in Status Offense Proceedings.”  in Representing Juvenile Status Offenders. Washington, D.C.: American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law, 86. Available at: see Mogulescu, S. et al. (2008) Making Court the Last Resort: A New Focus for Supporting Families in Crisis. New York, New York: Vera Institute of Justice (discussing the use of respite care in several jurisdictions).

2 See Child Welfare Information Gateway, “Types of Out-of-Home Care.” Available at: for more information on each of these placement options.

3 “Community-Based Alternatives to Secure Detention and Incarceration” from OJJDP Deinstitutionalization of Status Offenders Best Practices Database. Available at: