Is the Foster Care-Crime Relationship a Consequence of Exposure? Examining Potential Moderating Factors

AuthorEvan McCuish,Jennifer Yang,Raymond Corrado
DOI10.1177/1541204020939643
Published date01 January 2021
Date01 January 2021
Subject MatterArticles
YVJ939643 94..112 Article
Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice
2021, Vol. 19(1) 94-112
Is the Foster Care-Crime
ª The Author(s) 2020
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of Exposure? Examining
Potential Moderating Factors

Jennifer Yang1 , Evan McCuish2, and Raymond Corrado2
Abstract
Youth who are dually involved in both foster care and criminal justice systems represent a small
minority of individuals with multi-problem risk profiles. Prior research has found that foster care
youth are disproportionately more likely to be chronic offenders in both adolescence and emerging
adulthood. However, the nature of this relationship remains theoretically underexplored and
empirically underexamined, especially with respect to risk factors that may moderate the relationship.
Using data from the Incarcerated Serious and Violent Young Offender Study, the criminal offending
trajectories of 678 incarcerated youth were examined. A history of foster care predicted membership
in a high rate chronic offending trajectory. This relationship was not moderated by parental mal-
treatment, negative self-identity, involvement in gang activity, or substance use versatility. Findings
suggested a greater need for ongoing support for foster care youth during their transition to adult-
hood, regardless of their exposure to a range of other negative life circumstances.
Keywords
developmental life-course criminology; foster care; offending trajectories; serious, violent, and
chronic offenders
Placement in foster care is associated with childhood maltreatment and abuse, all of which have been
established as risk factors for offending. Unsurprisingly, not only are persons with a history of foster
care placement disproportionately found in both the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems
(Barn, 2010; Barth, 1990; Courtney et al., 2001), they are also more likely to show longer-term,
chronic patterns of offending (Ryan et al., 2007; Yang et al., 2017). However, missing from this
research is an examination of peripheral risk factors that possibly aggravate the foster care-crime
relationship. While some have suggested that foster care is its own type of adverse childhood
experience (Humphrey & Van Brunschot, 2018) that influences offending, a rival explanation is
1 John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, NY, USA
2 School of Criminology, Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, Canada
Corresponding Author:
Jennifer Yang, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 524 West 59th St., New York, NY 10019, USA.
Email: jeyang@jjay.cuny.edu

Yang et al.
95
that foster care youth are exposed to a wide range of other risk factors and that the relationship
between foster care and offending varies according to whether such risk factors are also present.
Moderation analyses are useful for examining whether the effect of a main predictor of interest on
a given outcome varies according to levels of other risk factors (Fairchild & MacKinnon, 2009).
Thus, the current study evaluated whether different risk factors moderated the relationship between
foster care and offending. Moderation effects can include instances in which foster care relates to
offending only when in the presence of certain other risk factors or instances in which the
relationship between foster care and offending is amplified when in the presence of certain other
risk factors (see Baron & Kenny, 1986). Potential moderating risk factors included parental mal-
treatment, negative self-identity, gang activity, and substance use. Data for the current study came
from a sample of 678 male and female participants from the Incarcerated Serious and Violent
Young Offender Study (ISVYOS). All participants were interviewed while incarcerated during a
period of adolescence and then were followed prospectively through emerging adulthood. First, the
relationship between foster care, crime, and the factors that potentially moderate this relationship
are described.
The Overlap between Foster Care and Crime
With respect to the foster care-crime relationship, the relative contributions of risk factors existing
prior to entry into the foster care system (e.g., parental abuse, neglect, maltreatment) and those that
accumulate as the result of the foster care experience (e.g., exposure to delinquent peers) are still
contested. However, what is not contested is that individuals in the child welfare system are dis-
proportionately found in the youth justice system (e.g., Dannerbeck & Yan, 2011; Herz et al., 2010;
Maschi et al., 2008). Yang et al. (2017) showed that child welfare system involvement was also
associated with criminal justice system involvement in adulthood. Given the importance of this
period of transition to the development of a healthy society (e.g. Arnett, 2000) and the hypothesized
disadvantages that foster care youth face during this period (e.g., aging out of the system), it is
particularly important to examine their longitudinal patterns of crime into adulthood.
Ryan et al. (2007) examined offending trajectories among a sample of adolescent males aging out
of the foster care system (n ¼ 294). Semi-parametric group-based modeling (SPGM), an application
of mixture modeling used to approximate trajectories across a sample (Nagin, 2005), was used to
examine offending patterns between the ages of 16–22. Ryan et al. (2007) identified three devel-
opmental trajectories: nonoffenders, early onset desisters, and chronic offenders. The proportion of
foster care youth characterized by a chronic offending trajectory (27%) was substantially higher
compared to the proportion of chronic offending trajectories found within general samples of
adolescents (Piquero, 2008). Yet, whether youth in care were disproportionately associated with
chronic offending compared to a similarly high-risk offending group was not addressed, as the study
did not include a comparison group.
Building upon the Ryan et al. (2007) study, Yang et al. (2017) used prospective longitudinal data
from the ISVYOS to compare foster care and non-foster care youth on offending outcomes (n ¼
364). Continued chronic offending was defined as having accrued 10 or more convictions in ado-
lescence (ages 12–17) and seven or more convictions in emerging adulthood (ages 18–23), repre-
senting a persistent and high level of involvement in crime across these two periods. Among the
foster care group, 32.2% were categorized as continued chronic offenders, as compared to 16.1% of
the comparison group. However, Yang et al. (2017) also identified a host of risk factors to which
foster care youth were differentially exposed. The current study investigated the extent to which
foster care youth exposure to these risk factors affects the strength of the relationship between foster
care and offending.

96
Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice 19(1)
Risk Factor Candidates for Moderating the Foster Care-Offending Relationship
Risk factor profiles of youth that have experienced child welfare intervention are more concerning
than similar youth who never have been placed in care (Corrado et al., 2011; Cutuli et al., 2016). It is
possible that one of these risk factors that are disproportionately found among foster care youth
aggravates the negative effects of foster care placement or it may be demonstrated that foster care
placement is unrelated to offending in the absence of these other risk factors (Yang et al., 2017). There
are several candidate risk factors that are disproportionately found among foster care youth, such as
child maltreatment and neglect, negative self-identity, gang involvement, and behavioral problems
such as substance use (Alltucker et al., 2006; Bullock & Gaehl, 2012).1 Child maltreatment, neglect,
and trauma are some of the most consistently found correlates among serious, violent, and chronic
offenders (Loeber & Farrington, 2000), and foster care youth are disproportionately victims of such
experiences (Jonson-Reid & Barth, 2000). Given the prevalence of victimization and experiences of
maltreatment from parents among those who become involved in the child welfare system (Zayed &
Harker, 2015), they are at an elevated state of vulnerability for negative outcomes such as offending
even prior to their placement in care.
At least due in part to parental maltreatment, youth placed in the foster care system may develop a
negative sense of self-identity. This includes a person’s own diminished status but also labeling by
others and devaluation of the person (Kools, 1997). This concern may be heightened for ethnic
minority youth (McRoy, 1994). The negative sense of self-identity associated with foster care youth
is hypothesized to result from factors such as an awareness of their biological parents’ unwanted
pregnancy, low self-esteem through the experience of separation from parents, substance use, home-
lessness, poor academic achievement, and other negative behavioral outcomes that may influence a
person’s placement in care (Salahu-Din & Bollman, 1994; Yancey, 1992). We are not aware of work
that has examined whether this negative self-identity of foster care youth influences their involve-
ment in offending. However, recent theoretical developments in the criminal desistance literature
have implicated adolescent self-identity as critical to the development of offending (e.g., Paternoster
& Bushway, 2009; Rocque et al., 2016).
Delinquent peer association is another risk factor associated with both foster care placement
(Shook et al.,...

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