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Foster care beyond placement: Offending outcomes in emerging adulthood

Published onJan 01, 2017
Foster care beyond placement: Offending outcomes in emerging adulthood


Purpose: Conceptually, foster care placement is an important risk factor for serious and violent offending. Empirically, little is known about the role of foster care placement on offending outcomes in adulthood. Methods: Data from the Incarcerated Serious and Violent Young Offender Study were used to examine whether children and youth in care (CYIC; n = 211) were disproportionately more likely than non-CYIC (n = 153) to (a) show a pattern of chronic offending and (b) engage in more serious forms of crime, both of which were measured from ages 12-23. Results: Dynamic classification tables were used to examine patterns of persistence and desistance between adolescence and emerging adulthood. Controlling for other risk factors, a multinomial logistic regression analysis showed that CYIC status increased the odds of chronic offending between adolescence and adulthood. This finding may be gender-specific. Conclusion: Although desistance is expected during the transition between adolescence and emerging adulthood, CYIC showed a disproportionate likelihood of chronic offending. Future research should examine whether CYIC are at a decreased likelihood of experiencing positive psychosocial outcomes in adulthood that traditionally influence desistance at this stage.

Keywords: Criminal careers; developmental life course criminology; emerging adulthood; foster care

Foster care beyond placement: Offending outcomes in emerging adulthood

Arnett (2006) described the transitional period of emerging adulthood as a time of identity exploration, instability, self-focus, possibilities, and feeling of in-between adolescence and adulthood. Most adjudicated youth are expected to show a pattern of desistance from offending during this transitional period (Farrington, 1986; Masten, Obradović & Burt, 2006; Sampson & Laub, 2005). However, a small group of youth show a heightened tendency to continue to offend across this transitional period (e.g., McCuish, Corrado, Lussier, & Hart, 2014). Identifying the factors that increase this group’s likelihood of continued offending is important to reduce their harm to potential victims, limit their cost to the justice system, and improve their overall lives and the lives of people around them (Cohen, Piquero, & Jennings, 2010; Tolan & Gorman-Smith, 1998). At least conceptually, factors that precipitated foster care placement, foster care placement itself, and the psychosocial consequences of foster care placement may make this transitional period especially challenging (Corrado & Freedman, 2011) and thus influence continued offending. However, very little empirical research has considered the role of foster care in the adolescence-adulthood transition among adjudicated youth.

Drawing from the concept of cumulative disadvantage (e.g., Moffitt, 1993) and interactional theory (e.g., Thornberry, 1987), children and youth in care1 (CYIC) may be at a particularly high likelihood of continued chronic offending between adolescence and emerging adulthood. Although factors precipitating placement in care and the foster care experience itself have been linked to adolescent offending (Corrado & Freedman, 2011), there has been less consideration for foster care as a stepping stone to negative psychosocial outcomes that influence continued offending through various stages of adulthood. From an age-graded theory of informal social control perspective (e.g., Sampson & Laub, 1997), desistance from offending among CYIC may be less likely because of the diminishing resources experienced by these individuals as they transition into emerging adulthood (e.g., loss of child welfare system support as a result of “ageing out”). In effect, combined with risk factors that result in foster care placement and negative experiences of foster care placement, CYIC may hold fewer resources that help them transition to adulthood. As one example, whereas biological parents are free to continue to support their children after age 18, most jurisdictions have legislation requiring that child welfare services and associated support for CYIC cease after a specific age threshold. As another example, financial independence helps promote desistance in emerging adulthood (Hill, van der Geest, & Blokland, 2017), but for CYIC, the accumulation of negative life events in childhood and adolescence combined with a lack of resource support to successfully cross the adolescence-adulthood transition (e.g., funding for post-secondary education) may decrease the likelihood of timely financial independence and in turn result in continued offending.

Overall, the transition through emerging adulthood is expected to be qualitatively different for CYIC compared to non-CYIC due at least in part to the former being subject to policies that explicitly state that ministerial support ends at entry into adulthood. The purpose of the current study was not to examine whether CYIC experience more negative psychosocial outcomes, but rather to take the first step in addressing whether CYIC in fact experience more concerning offending outcomes between adolescence and emerging adulthood. This question was addressed using data on CYIC (n = 211) and non-CYIC (n = 153) from the second cohort of the Incarcerated Serious and Violent Young Offender Study.

Characteristics and Experiences of CYIC Before, During, and After Placement

Despite the common perception that CYIC are deviant children before entering the foster care system, statistics on CYIC in England for 2015 showed that only five percent of children had entered care due to their own behavior or disability, and 61 percent had entered due to abuse or neglect (Zayed & Harker, 2015). Although studies showed that a secure placement coupled with a quality, continuous relationship with a foster parent can divert the onset of a criminal career (Goemans, van Geel, van Beem, & Vedder, 2016; Soothill, Fitzpatrick, & Francis, 2009), this type of foster care experience is irregular. Between 20-50% of foster care placements in England during 2015 were disrupted. The negative consequences of this breakdown may compromise the positive effects of foster care (Goemans et al., 2016; Minty, 1999), especially when the disruption was caused by abuse or neglect within the placement home (Burns et al., 2004; Riebschleger, Day, & Damashek, 2015; Stein et al., 2001). Youth moved from biological home to foster home and youth that are required to change foster care homes will experience greater residential mobility that may also involve changing schools and losing connections to peers that in turn may increase the risk of offending. In addition to the potentially negative experiences incurred while placed in foster care, what comes before foster care placement is also important for unraveling the pathway to involvement in serious and violent offending (Corrado & Freedman, 2011; Cutuli et al., 2016).

Family functioning is one of the strongest predictors of later criminal behavior (Sampson & Laub, 1992; Stouthamer-Loeber, Loeber, Homish, & Wei, 2001; Widom, 1991) and CYIC often come from families where maltreatment formed the basis for government intervention (Taylor, 2006). Although the young person must be protected from harm and provided stability during a critical developmental period, separation from family, regardless of how tumultuous the family dynamic is, can also be traumatic. In addition to the effects of trauma on emotional and physical health, trauma is also associated with behavioral problems, including criminal behavior (Stouthamer-Loeber et al., 2001). Indeed, several studies demonstrated higher rates of substance abuse and antisocial behavior within CYIC (Corrado, Freedman, & Blatier, 2011; Cutuli et al., 2016; Mallett, 2014; Ryan & Testa, 2005; White, O’Brien, White, Pecora, & Phillips, 2008). CYIC also are more likely to have a learning disability, perform poorly in school, and lack sufficient educational support (Maschi, Hatcher, Schwalbe, & Rosato, 2008; Ryan, Herz, Hernandez, & Marshall 2007). In effect, CYIC are characterized by a wide range of risk factors that accumulate over time, resulting in a risk factor profile resembling the hypothesized profile of long-term serious and violent offenders (Farrington, 2005; Fox, Perez, Cass, Baglivio, & Epps, 2015; Moffitt, 1993; Nagin & Tremblay, 1999). However, there also appears to be a direct effect of foster care placement on later offending, irrespective of the accumulation of other risk factors. Baglivio et al. (2016) showed that hypothesized key risk factors (e.g., adverse child experiences) for recidivism did not account for the effect of child welfare involvement on offending. In addition to the direct effects of circumstances before and during foster care placement on offending outcomes, these two components of the lives of CYIC may also adversely affect positive adult outcomes that promote desistance.

Empirical and even theoretical consideration for the role of CYIC on continued offending in adulthood is lacking despite obvious parallels between foster care placement and, for example, age-based theories of informal social control (e.g., Sampson & Laub, 1997). Foster care placement may precipitate state dependence effects in which social capital and bonds are weakened through placement, increasing the likelihood of continued offending. Indeed, the relationship between foster care experiences and poor educational attainment, poor employment prospects, and difficulties obtaining housing after leaving care (Courtney, Piliavin, Grogan-Kaylor, & Nesmith, 2001; Courtney et al., 2007) are barriers to the types of turning points commonly linked to desistance (Sampson & Laub, 2003). Thus, this accumulation of risk factors that directly impact offending or interfere with turning points can stem from and be compounded by foster care, increasing the likelihood of an offending pattern that persists into adulthood.

The Justice System Involvement of CYIC

A disproportionate number of individuals in the youth criminal justice system have a history of foster care placement (Baskin & Sommers, 2011; Cutuli et al., 2016; Herz, Ryan, & Bilchik, 2010; Ryan, Herz et al., 2007; Taylor, 2006). However, this research relied almost exclusively on cross-sectional research designs or examined shorter-term recidivism outcomes (Courtney et al., 2001). Whether CYIC are disproportionately associated with more serious and violent offending patterns that extend into adulthood remains relatively unclear. Conceptually, although incarceration has deleterious effects on youth in general (Gilman, Hill, & Hawkins, 2015), incarceration for CYIC compromises placement stability (Conger & Ross, 2001; Corrado et al., 2011), such as in instances where another youth fills the newly vacant foster care placement. Thus justice system involvement may be particularly harmful for CYIC compared to non-CYIC. There is also the concern that there may be structural biases against CYIC within the justice system resulting in more punitive sentences (Conger & Ross, 2001; Morris & Freundlich, 2004; Ryan, Herz et al., 2007).

There are several longitudinal studies of CYIC from which the current study can build upon. In one of the first prospective longitudinal studies exploring the nature of the relationship between foster care and offending, Ryan, Hernandez and Herz (2007) identified three unique developmental offending trajectories for adolescents leaving the foster care system: nonoffenders, desisters, and chronic offenders. In their study, 27% of the sample of adolescents leaving foster care were associated with a chronic offending trajectory. This is substantially more than the number of chronic or life course persistent offenders hypothesized to be found in general populations (e.g., Moffitt, 1993; Wolfgang, Figlio, & Sellin 1972). However, Ryan, et al. (2007) did not include a comparison group of non-CYIC offenders, which would have provided more insight into the contributory role of placement in care. Doyle’s (2008) analysis showed that CYIC were more likely to recidivate in adulthood compared to those on the margins of foster care placement. Although not specifically examining foster care, Baglivio, Wolf, Piquero, and Epps (2015) found that adverse childhood experiences (ACE), which may be particularly common among CYIC, differentiated chronic offenders from other offender groups. Thus, ACE may at least partially contribute to the expected relationship between foster care and offending.

What remains unclear from these studies is whether foster care placement is associated with a higher rate of offending across adolescence and emerging adulthood compared to other adolescent offenders with no history of foster care. Of particular interest in the current study was not simply whether foster care youth are disproportionately overrepresented in the justice system, but whether this group is disproportionately involved in offending that continues between adolescence and adulthood. The current study also has important theoretical implications about whether CYIC have a more difficult pathway to desistance. Overall, this line of analysis has important implications for criminal justice policy, policy specific to CYIC, and the efficacy of existing prevention and intervention strategies in response to serious, violent, and chronic offenders. CYIC experiences before, during, and after placement implies that they may have unique programming needs compared to the general offending population, and may warrant more extensive support during emerging adulthood. Although this study does not examine the differing roles of risk factors throughout the life course, it provides a necessary foundation for such future research. For criminal justice practitioners, the identification of CYIC offenders along different stages of development could play a role in tailoring interventions to curtail escalation to more serious behaviour, and to overcome CYIC-specific barriers to desistance.

Study Aims

The literature suggests that CYIC and non-CYIC should experience the period of emerging adulthood in substantially different ways. Although various studies have examined the increased risk of offending for CYIC, this research tended to focus on general justice system involvement, lacked an appropriate comparison group, and focused on short-term offending outcomes. To better understand CYIC at the ‘deep end’ (Mulvey et al., 2004) of the justice system, longitudinal data were used to evaluate the relationship between foster care placement and chronic offending that continued between adolescence and emerging adulthood. This line of analysis is important given the difficulty in explaining this pattern of offending (e.g., Sampson & Laub, 2003) combined with the costs associated with this pattern of offending (e.g., Cohen et al., 2010). Dynamic classification tables were used to examine whether offending patterns between adolescence and emerging adulthood differed between adjudicated CYIC and non-CYIC. Although the period of emerging adulthood was of interest in the current study, offending in adolescence was also measured to capture the most frequent group of offenders that showed a high rate of offending in both developmental periods. Qualitative differences in offending patterns were also examined by inspecting the crime mix of CYIC and non-CYIC to examine whether the former was disproportionately more likely to commit serious crimes (e.g., violence).



Data for the current study were derived from the Incarcerated Serious and Violent Young Offender Study (ISVYOS), which was conducted in British Columbia, Canada and has been ongoing since 1998. The ISVYOS consists of two cohorts, one cohort of youth interviewed between 1998-2003 and a second cohort of youth interviewed between 2005-2011. Questions concerning lifetime foster care placement were only asked of the second cohort, and as such, is the focus of the current study. As well, because of outstanding research issues related to the lack of information on the adult offending outcomes of CYIC, focus within the current study was limited to participants that were followed prospectively into emerging adulthood (n = 364), defined here as between the ages of 18 to 23 (also see Lussier & Blokland, 2014). The sample used in the current study consisted of adjudicated adolescent males (n = 309) and females (n =55), all of whom were interviewed in open and secure custody facilities within the Greater Vancouver Regional District and surrounding areas. Indigenous persons are overrepresented in detention facilities in Canada. Likewise, the percentage of Indigenous offenders in the current study (31.6%) was substantively higher than within the general population of British Columbia (6.2%; Statistics Canada, 2013). The sample is not representative of all youth involved in crime in British Columbia. However, it is representative of offenders in the Canadian youth justice system sentenced to detention and of youth with more serious patterns of offending. Indeed, youth included in the sample were convicted of, on average, 9.85 offenses between age 12 and 17 and spent approximately 8 months incarcerated during this same period (232.99 days; SD = 250.92). Descriptive information about the sample is shown in Table 1.

--Insert Table 1 about Here--


The purpose of the ISVYOS was to identify risk factors associated with various parameters of the criminal career. Self-report interviews were conducted and file-based information was collected on a sample of youth incarcerated in various centers throughout British Columbia. The British Columbia Ministry of Child and Family Development acts as the legal guardian to all youth in custody and their consent allowed the research team to ask incarcerated youth if they wished to participate in the study. Youth were eligible to participate in the study if all the following criteria were met: (1) were English-speaking, (2) demonstrated an understanding of interview questions (e.g., had no noticeably severe learning disability), and (3) were willing to provide accurate information. Data concerning refusal rates were not collected during the entirety of the study, but in the time that such data were collected, approximately 5% of eligible youth refused to participate. Research assistants (RAs) interviewed participants in an isolated interview room to help ensure confidentiality. All participants were read and given a copy of an information sheet which explained the purpose of the study, how information would be collected (i.e., interview and file information), and that all information would be kept confidential unless the participant made a direct threat against themselves or someone else. To improve the reliability of self-reported information, RAs accessed case management files, which contained presentence reports and other information, to help detect discrepancies between interview responses and official records.

In British Columbia, the Ministry of Child and Family Development (MCFD) is the governmental body responsible for child welfare services in addition to the youth criminal justice system. Children and youth in care are those who are in the care of or under the legal guardianship of a caregiver designated by MCFD. Reasons that a child may enter care are prescribed in ss.13(1) of the Child, Family and Community Service Act (CFCSA, 1996), which include physical, sexual, emotional harm, deprivation of health care, parents who are unable or unwilling to care, absence, and abandonment. Children and youth may enter foster care with the consent of their parents or with the use of custody orders. Once legal custody of the child has been transferred to MCFD, three main types of government care placements include group care, family-based foster care, and kinship care (i.e., placement in the home of a relative or someone else who shares a meaningful relationship with the child). In British Columbia, the maximum age of protection is set at 19 years, at which the youth “ages out” of the system, and no longer has access to the financial and social supports offered by MCFD (Rutman & Hubberstey, 2011).


Measures of offending. Offending was measured using data using British Columbia Corrections’ computerized system, Corrections Network (CORNET), which contains information pertaining to each offender’s movement in and out of custody as well as the exact criminal offense, date of conviction, and sentence type. Using data from this computerized system, criminal convictions were coded for the entire sample from age 12 up to age 23. All youth in the sample in the current study were at least age 23 at the time criminal histories were coded, which ensured that the role of ageing and age was controlled for among participants. Age 23 was used as the cut-point as it was consistent with prior literature (e.g., Lussier & Blokland, 2014). The start of the follow-up period, age 12, represented the minimum age of criminal responsibility in Canada. From that point on, every criminal charge (and the crime-type) that resulted in a conviction was coded at each person-period observation (i.e., frequency of convictions at age 12, at age 13, etc.). The average number of charges that resulted in conviction between ages 12 to 23 was 17.60 (SD = 12.37). The median number of convictions was 15, highlighting that the high mean number of convictions found was not an artifact of a small subgroup of individuals (i.e., chronic offenders). Although it was possible for offenders to commit new offenses while outside of the province, the current study had access only to records of offenses committed within the province of British Columbia. During the follow-up period, seven offenders died (1.9% of the sample) and nine (2.5%) moved outside the province. For these participants, convictions after the age of death or age of move were coded as missing rather than as ‘zero’.

Demographic characteristics and foster care. Age at interview, gender, and ethnicity were self-reported by each participant as part of their structured interview with RAs. Most participants were male (n = 309; 84.9%). Based on self-reported ethnicity, participants were defined as being either White (n = 195; 53.6%), Indigenous (n = 115; 31.6%), or a non-Indigenous minority (n = 53; 14.6%). The latter category included individuals that were Black, Hispanic, Indian, Middle Eastern, or Asian. Participants were also asked if they were ever placed in foster care at any point prior to their interview. Older youth would have more of an opportunity to experience placement in foster care compared to younger youth, yet an independent samples t-test showed that CYIC (16.52 [SD = 0.96]) were significantly (p < .05) younger at the time of interview compared to non-CYIC (16.76 [SD = 0.97]). Despite the significant difference, we considered the groups to be substantively similar in age.

Criminogenic risk factors. All criminogenic risk factors were measured at the time of the participant’s interview during their incarceration in adolescence. Four types of risk domains were examined: negative self-identity, family dysfunction, school behavioral problems, and substance use versatility. Negative self-identity (Kools, 1997), family dysfunction (Baglivio et al., 2016; Dannerbeck & Yan, 2011), behavioral problems in school (Corrado & Freedman, 2011; Farrington, 1989), and substance use (Pilowsky & Wu, 2006; White et al., 2008) are associated with placement in care. Negative self-identity was measured using Schneider’s (1990) Good Citizen’s Scale, a self-report inventory of 15 identity traits coded on a 1-7 scale (Cronbach’s alpha = 0.75), with items reverse-coded so that higher scores indicated a more negative sense of self-identity. Dichotomous items comprised the three scales measuring family dysfunction, school behavioral problems, and substance use versatility. Gadermann, Guhn, and Zumbo (2012) found that Cronbach’s alpha underestimates the reliability of scales comprised of dichotomous items because it is based on the Pearson covariance matrix, which assumes that items are continuous. Thus, tetrachoric ordinal alpha (αtc) was used (α = k × ravg) / [1 + (k − 1) ravg]).

For the family dysfunction scale, participants reported whether their biological mother, biological father, and/or a biological sibling had trouble with alcohol, had trouble with drugs, had experienced physical abuse, had experienced sexual abuse, had a criminal record, or had a mental illness. These six categories were aggregated into a global scale (αtc = .89). School behavioral problems was defined by 21 dichotomous items from the Measurement of Adolescent Social and Personal Adaptation in Quebec (LeBlanc et al., 1996). These items included measures of classroom disruption, truancy, bullying, fighting, drug use, sexual misbehavior, and selling of illegal goods (αtc = .903). Self-reported substance use versatility was measured via an aggregate scale of nine different substances: alcohol, marijuana, hallucinogens, ecstasy, cocaine, heroin, crack cocaine, crystal methamphetamine, and illegal use of prescription pills (αtc = .87).

Analytic Strategy

A principal interest concerned potential differences or similarities between CYIC and non-CYIC in terms of stability, escalation, or de-escalation in offending patterns between adolescence and emerging adulthood. Unlike measures of recidivism, dynamic classification tables can capture changes in the patterning of offending over different developmental periods (e.g., Ayres et al., 1999; Le Blanc & Kaspy, 1998; Loeber, Stouthamer-Loeber, van Kammen, & Farrington, 1991). The dynamic classification strategy consists of constructing mutually exclusive categories of offenders based on their individual-level patterns of offending at one point in time, and comparing the stability or change of categorization at another point in time. For the current study, a participant’s offending category in adolescence (i.e., non-recidivist, recidivist, and chronic) was compared with their offending category in emerging adulthood (abstainer, non-recidivist, recidivist, and chronic).

Chronicity was defined using Piquero, Farrington, and Blumstein’s (2007) approach, in which chronicity is identified as the point at which the probability of a ‘next offense’ remains relatively high and stable for the sample as a whole. Within the current sample, after applying Piquero et al.’s (2007) formula, chronic adolescent offending (ages 12-17) was defined as 10 or more convictions (43.4% of the sample). For emerging adulthood (ages 18-23), chronic offending was defined as seven or more convictions (41.5% of the sample). Participants were categorized as follows: (a) non-recidivists, i.e., those with only one conviction; (b) recidivists, i.e., those with at least two and less than 10 convictions in adolescence or seven in adulthood; and (c) chronic offenders, i.e., at least 10 or seven convictions. This operationalization was applied to juvenile offending and adult offending separately. In adulthood, abstainers were considered those without a conviction between ages 18-23. There was a significant association between offending status in adolescence and offending status in emerging adulthood (χ2[6] = 32.3, p < .001). Following the identification of offending categories per the dynamic classification table, multinomial logistic regression analysis was used to examine the relationship between placement in foster care and continued chronic offending between adolescence and emerging adulthood. Whether the effect of foster care status varied depending on gender was also examined in a moderation analysis. Finally, to compare seriousness of offending over time, the average number of convictions across seven offense-type categories were examined between the ages of 12 to 23 in an aggregate crime mix for CYIC and non-CYIC.


Descriptive statistics in Table 2 highlight differences between CYIC (n = 211) and non-CYIC (n = 153). Although there is an overall overrepresentation of Indigenous offenders in the Canadian criminal justice system, this overrepresentation was particularly salient for CYIC in the current study. There was also a higher proportion of non-Indigenous minorities among non-CYIC than CYIC. Further, female offenders were disproportionately more likely to be CYIC than non-CYIC. This finding is important to consider when interpreting the relationship between CYIC and offending given that (a) CYIC are expected to be more frequent offenders but (b) frequency of offending for adjudicated females is typically lower compared to adjudicated males (e.g., McCuish et al., 2014). At the bivariate level, CYIC were significantly (p < .05) more likely to be characterized by all risk factors under examination (i.e., family dysfunction, negative self-identity, school behavioral problems, substance use versatility). Table 2 also provides a comparison of basic criminal career parameters across the two groups. Compared to non-CYIC, CYIC averaged a significantly earlier age of onset, more time incarcerated between ages 12 to 23, and a greater number of convictions incurred between ages 12 to 23. Such findings are noteworthy given that females were disproportionately more likely to be CYIC yet, compared to males, females averaged significantly less time incarcerated between ages 12 to 23 (344 days versus 751 days [t(106.49) = 5.84, p < .001]) and also averaged significantly fewer convictions over this period (14.71 versus 18.11 [t(94.73) = 2.39, p < .05).

--Insert Table 2 about Here--

A dynamic classification table showing patterns of stability, deceleration, and escalation in offending status across adolescence and emerging adulthood is shown in Table 3. Four general patterns of offending were identified: (1) deceleration, (2) stabilization, (3) acceleration, and (4) continued chronic. Overall, 30.1% of the sample (n = 102) showed some form of deceleration between the two periods, 19.5% (n = 66) exhibited relative, non-chronic, stability in offending, 24.8% (n = 84) showed a pattern of acceleration, and 25.7% (n = 87) showed a pattern of chronic offending. Those categorized as chronic offenders in adolescence could not accelerate in adulthood due to a ceiling effect.

-- Insert Table 3 about Here --

These different offender categories were compared across demographic characteristics, CYIC status, and other risk factors in a multinomial logistic regression analysis (Table 4). A pattern of stabilization was used as the reference group because individuals associated with this category had incurred the fewest convictions. Controlling for demographic characteristics, family problems, school behavior problems, and self-identity, the odds of showing a pattern of continued chronic offending between adolescence and emerging adulthood was 2.5 times higher for CYIC compared to non-CYIC. Participants that were younger at the time of their interview were also more likely to show a pattern of continued chronic offending across the two time-periods. Age at interview was likely acting as a proxy for age of onset of offending (r = .437, p < .001). Specifically, youth interviewed at a younger age were likely incarcerated at a younger age and this earlier age at incarceration predicted continued offending at a high rate through emerging adulthood. To examine whether the role of foster care on offending was gendered, a second model was performed that allowed gender and foster care placement to interact. With being male and non-CYIC as the reference category, being male and CYIC were at a 2.55 higher odds of being in the chronic offending group compared to the stabilization group (p < .05). However, being female and CYIC was not associated with offending pattern. There may be distinct pathways to offending by gender, with females less affected by foster care placement.

-- Insert Table 4 about Here --

Whereas the previous analyses concerned frequency of offending, analyses in Figures 1 and 2 concerned the qualitative nature of CYIC and non-CYIC offending patterns. The average number of convictions per year were examined across seven different crime types. The proportion of each crime-type that accounts for the total frequency of offending within CYIC and non-CYIC offenders is indicated by different shades within the figures. The classic age-crime curve was observed for both groups, in which crime rapidly increased through adolescence but then began a slow decline at approximately age 18. For both groups, the age-crime curve was relatively consistent across offense types. Property and violation offenses accounted for the majority of offenses among both CYIC and non-CYIC, however independent samples t-tests showed that CYIC averaged a significantly (p < .05) greater number of violent convictions, property convictions, violation convictions, and miscellaneous convictions. Not only did CYIC commit more serious crimes more frequently, these crime categories were disproportionately represented in the crime mix of CYIC. By the age of 23, total number of violent convictions incurred by CYIC represented, on average, approximately 24% of all convictions incurred. Another independent-samples t-test showed that this proportion was significantly (p < .05) greater than the proportion of violent convictions for the non-CYIC group (approximately 17%).

--Insert Figures 1 and 2 about Here--


Chronic, serious, and violent youth represent one of the most important policy concerns within the justice system (Piquero, 2014), especially because of their disproportionate likelihood of continued offending in adulthood. Despite this group’s importance, researchers have noted challenges in identifying childhood and adolescent risk factors associated with continued offending. For most adolescent offenders, complete termination from offending occurs in emerging adulthood. Arnett (2006) described this time as the “age of possibilities” (7) where individuals are presented with opportunities to initiate a cascade of positive change by entering new social roles and contexts (e.g., employment, education, residence, family formation) and gain new skills for adulthood (Rindfuss, Swicegood, & Rosenfeld, 1987; Thornberry et al., 2012). Among offenders, conceptually, there are more opportunities to desist during this period than during any other phase of development (Masten et al., 2004; Stouthamer-Loeber, Wei, Loeber, & Masten, 2004; Thornberry et al., 2012). However, this is also the period where deficits in human capital can become more discernible, as individuals experience independence from the structural supports provided by their families or through schools, and in the case of CYIC, child welfare services (Krohn et al., 2013; Thornberry et al., 2012). Prior to entering emerging adulthood, CYIC are already at a greater disadvantage in terms of educational attainment, employment prospects and prosocial bonds and supports (Corrado & Freedman, 2011; Courtney et al., 2001; Ryan, Hernandez et al., 2007) and without adequate supports in place, the transition into adulthood may be particularly challenging (Thornberry et al., 2012).

Although specific adult experiences of CYIC were not examined, the conceptual concern that this group would be disproportionately more likely to continue to offend was empirically observed. Data collected as part of the Incarcerated Serious and Violent Young Offender Study showed that, among incarcerated youth, a history of foster care placement was the norm (i.e., 58% of the sample). At the bivariate level, CYIC were more likely to offend at an earlier age, spend more time incarcerated, and committed offenses at a frequency that was 1.5 times greater than non-CYIC offenders (p < .001). These measures have been associated with a likelihood of lengthier criminal careers (e.g., DeLisi & Piquero, 2011). Using dynamic classification tables and a multinomial logistic regression analysis, CYIC were approximately 2.5 times more likely to show a stable pattern of chronic offending across adolescence and emerging adulthood, even after controlling for a variety of risk factors also associated with foster care placement. Examining the interaction between foster care and gender indicated that the influence of foster care on offending may be specific to males. A rival explanation is that the smaller number of females in the sample (n = 55) was insufficient for the moderation analysis. A comparison of the crime-mix of CYIC and non-CYIC showed that the former were also more violent offenders in terms of both frequency of violence and in terms of violence as a proportion of total offending.

In addition to offending frequency and severity, CYIC spent a greater amount of time incarcerated (Table 2), which may be a function of structural biases in juvenile justice processes, wherein CYIC may be more likely to be convicted of an offense, or once convicted, be given a greater number of conditions while on probation and thus more likely to be convicted of administrative offenses. Although the data were not able to capture purposeful judicial biases against CYIC, as presented in Table 2, CYIC were on average more likely to be charged with administrative offenses than their non-CYIC counterparts (p < .001). In support of this, Ryan, Herz et al., (2007) found that CYIC in their study tended to receive more punitive sentences, which are less effective in reducing the likelihood of continued offending (Gilman et al., 2015). Moreover, there are also concerns that incarceration in adolescence may delay entrance into adult roles, and thus increase the risk of continued involvement in antisocial behavior in emerging adulthood (Piquero, Diamond, Jennings, & Reingle, 2013; Salvatore, 2013).

Among the sample, deceleration was the most common pattern of offending, although only 10.9% of the sample completely abstained from offending in adulthood. Relative to the rest of the sample, CYIC were more likely to be characterized as continued chronic offenders than decelerators. Although there were no prior studies with similar samples to which to compare these results, Ryan, Hernandez, and Herz (2007) conducted a study of male adolescents leaving foster care, and identified three developmental offending trajectories; nonoffenders, early onset desisters, and chronic offenders, where chronic offenders accounted for 27% of their sample (n = 294). The proportion of CYIC in Ryan et al.’s (2007) study that were identified as ‘chronic’ offenders was substantially higher than what is typically observed in studies on offending trajectories within general samples (see Piquero, 2008 for a review). However, whether CYIC were disproportionately associated with chronic offending could not be determined without a non-CYIC comparison group. The current study expanded upon Ryan et al.’s findings by showing that, net of a range of other important criminogenic risk factors, CYIC status was associated with a 244% increase in the odds of demonstrating a pattern of continued chronic offending between adolescence and adulthood.

Limitations and Future Research

The current study focused on explanations of serious, violent, and chronic offending and such research, in the absence of tens of thousands of sample members, requires studying youth at the ‘deep end’ of the justice system (Mulvey et al., 2004). Consequently, although the current study helped build upon existing research on the developmental course of offending between adolescence and emerging adulthood, CYIC in the current study were only included in the sample if they were incarcerated during a period of adolescence. Moreover, CYIC status was determined via self-report interview and thus it is possible that the actual prevalence of CYIC was underestimated. Nevertheless, among youth that have spent time in custody, CYIC were at an increased risk of continued frequent offending in emerging adulthood. We elected to include both males and females in our analyses because of the ongoing need to understand female offending patterns and associated risk factors, especially using longitudinal data (Loeber, Jennings, Ahonen, Piquero, & Farrington, 2017). One limitation in this approach was that the sample included only 55 female offenders. In addition to sample size concerns, a longer follow-up period would have provided a clearer understanding of patterns of persistence and desistance. The study was limited to official data on offending. A combined use of official and self-report data would have provided more accurate insight into the offending behaviors of CYIC and non-CYIC, especially considering the potential for court-ordered conditions to be stricter, greater in number, and more difficult to follow for CYIC. Such court sanctions may have played part of the role in CYIC averaging more time incarcerated than non-CYIC. The lengthier time spent incarcerated for CYIC may also be related to their tendency to commit more serious offenses. The lengthier time spent incarcerated for CYIC implies that the odds ratio observed in the multinomial logistic regression analysis would be higher if accounting for exposure time.

The study did not include measures of foster care experiences. Previous studies found that length of care (e.g. Bullock & Gaehl, 2012; Oosterman, Schuengel, Slot, Bullens, & Doreleijers, 2007) and number of placements (e.g. Cutuli et al., 2016; Newton, Litrownik, & Landsverk, 2000) were related to involvement with the juvenile justice system. Further, an exploration of the experiences of CYIC and non-CYIC during the transition into adulthood would have supplemented the relationship between placement in care and persistent offending patterns. The results of the current study are in line with the extant research on placement in care that indicate an overall increased risk of involvement in crime. However, the extent and nature of this risk, until now, remained empirically unexplored.

Current tools for identifying serious, violent, and chronic offenders are largely reactive in nature, wherein these individuals are identified after they have committed the offenses that qualify them for this label (Fox et al., 2015). Resource allocation to youth prevention programs is substantially small when compared to punitive responses (Greenwood & Zimring, 2007). Early interventions specifically targeting the needs of CYIC in the transition to adulthood may be warranted given their overrepresentation in the justice systems and the associated financial and societal costs, due to their likelihood of continued chronic offending. Successful prevention and intervention strategies that can capitalize on the ‘age of opportunities’ for CYIC and provide needs-specific support for those who are dually involved in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems could help reduce frequency of offending as well as the economic and societal costs related to serious, violent, and chronic offending. In a review of US-based Federal policies in the last 25 years, Stott (2013) identified that although there have been improvements to services available for youth aging out of care, they do not adequately reflect nor support the growing number of youth aging out of care. Despite changes in in Federal policy, access to basic needs such as housing and health care is limited for transitioning CYIC, due to lack of funding and eligibility restrictions (e.g., full-time employment or schooling, compliance with mental health services, drug screening tests; Stott, 2013) that exclude the most vulnerable youth. Particularly considering societal changes lengthening the period of transition to adulthood, services for CYIC aging out of care should reflect the scaffolding supports most non-CYIC receive from their parents/guardians well into emerging adulthood. Indeed, several studies have examined the benefits of extending care and supports for CYIC to ages 21-23 (e.g. Courtney, Peters, Dworsky, & Pollock, 2009; Delgado, Fellmeth, Packard, Prosek, & Weichel, 2007; Washington State Public Policy, 2010) and have found improvements in educational and employment outcomes, and thus an overall greater level of self-sufficiency. Therefore, investing in extended supports for youth aging out of care could help narrow the gap in social capital between CYIC and non-CYIC in emerging adulthood, and offset the costs of later adverse outcomes, including costs related to serious and violent crimes.

Using a combination of a group-based trajectory method and an economic evaluation of the costs related to crime, Cohen et al. (2010) identified that offenders associated with a high-rate chronic offending pattern posed significantly greater costs to the justice system and other areas compared to offenders associated with a lower rate offending pattern. Cohen et al. (2010) estimated that over 200 million dollars could be saved by preventing these individuals from becoming high-rate chronic offenders. Emerging adulthood is a period of opportunity (Arnett, 2006) and opens possibilities to effectively implement intervention strategies that can impact change in identity and social functioning that improves the likelihood of desistance. Although emerging adulthood may be a critical period for all, because CYIC are especially likely to lack support at this stage, they may also be particularly vulnerable to missing out on opportunities that promote desistance. To date, evaluation studies have focused on the effectiveness of interventions at either adolescence or adulthood, but comparatively fewer studies have looked specifically at the transitional period in between (Welsh et al., 2012). Studies examining the transition of CYIC into adulthood have seldom focused on outcomes of serious, violent, and chronic offending. Although the current study was a first step, further research on the experiences of CYIC offenders during the period of emerging adulthood is needed to determine best practices for the extension of ministerial support and how to best counteract delays in the transition to adulthood due to disadvantages relating to placement in care.


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Tables and Figures

Table 1:

Descriptive information of the sample (n = 364)

 Individual characteristics

% (n)

M (SD)

Demographic Factors



15.1% (55)


84.9% (309)



53.6% (195)


31.6% (115)

Non-Indigenous minority

14.6% (53)

Age at interview

16.62 (0.97)

Foster care placement

58% (211)

Criminal Career Parameters

Age of onset

15.33 (1.75)

Days incarcerated (12-17)

232.99 (250.92)

Days incarcerated (18-23)

435.02 (511.74)

Offending frequency (12-17)

9.85 (8.23)

Offending frequency (18-23)

7.42 (7.44)

Table 2:

Bivariate comparisons of non-CYIC and CYIC


(n = 153)


(n = 211)

χ2/t, p


M (SD)/ % (n)

M (SD)/ % (n)


Demographic Factors


11.1% (17)

18.0% (38)

χ2 (1) = 3.3, p = 0.07


57.2% (87)

51.2% (108)

χ2 (2) = 25.1, p < .001


19.7% (30)

40.3% (85)

Non-Indigenous minority

23.0% (35)

8.5% (18)

Age at interview

16.76 (0.97)

16.52 (0.96)

t(362) = 2.42, p < .05

Risk Factors

Family dysfunction

2.48 (2.55)

4.36 (3.34)

t(318.96) = -5.71, p < .001

Negative self-identity

48.26 (9.88)

50.67 (10.01)

t(323) =-2.15, p < .05

School behavioral problems

9.40 (3.92)

10.39 (3.83)

t(357) =-2.40, p < .05

Substance use versatility

5.17 (2.38)

5.92 (1.91)

t(280.29) = -3.22, p < .01

Criminal Career Parameters

Age of onset

15.88 (1.79)

14.96 (1.62)

t(336) = 4.95, p < .001

Days incarcerated (12-23)

600 (641)

750 (662)

t(334) = -2.06, p < .05

Offending frequency (12-23)

13.50 (11.32)

20.38 (12.30)

t(357) = -5.21, p < .001

Violent offenses (12-23)

2.00 (1.79)

2.84 (2.64)

t(337) = -3.49, p < .001

Administrative offenses (12-23)

5.23 (5.27)

8.13 (5.72)

t(326) = -4.66, p < .001

Continuity of offending

67.9% (93)

86.6% (175)

χ2 (1) = 17.3, p < .001

Chronic offending (adolescence)

27.7% (38)

54.0% (109)

χ2 (1) = 22.9, p < .001

Chronic offending (adulthood)

32.2% (48)

48.6% (101)

χ2 (1) = 10.1, p < .01

Note. CYIC = children and youth in care. Continuity of offending defined as having a conviction in both adolescence (12-17) and adulthood (18-23).

Levene’s test violated. Output for equal variances not assumed is shown.

Table 3:

Deceleration patterns of offending from adolescence to adulthood in adjudicated youth

Adult offending status (18-23)

Juvenile offending status (12-17)




Chronic offenders



















Chronic offenders









Note. n = 339. Light grey = deceleration. White area = stable. Dark grey area = acceleration. Number of individuals are presented in cells with associated percentages. The first percentage reflects the row percentage (e.g., % of non-recidivists who are abstainers in adulthood) while the second percentage is based on the full sample (e.g., % of the sample who were chronic offenders in both time periods).

χ2(6) = 32.3, p < .001, Cramer’s V = .219

Table 4:

Multinomial logistic regression model with offending pattern as the outcome of interest




Continued Chronic


(n = 90; 31.2%)

(n = 70; 24.3%)

(n = 77; 26.7%)


OR (95% CI)

OR (95% CI)

OR (95% CI)

Demographic Characteristics





0.60 (0.18-1.98)

1.34 (0.33-5.39)

1.42 (0.38-5.30)

Age at interview

0.47*** (0.31-0.71)

1.05 (0.67-1.62)

0.55** (0.36-0.84)

Ethnic Group1

White (reference category)





2.31 (0.73-7.34)

1.88 (0.58-6.04)

0.71 (0.17-2.96)

Non-Indigenous minority

1.38 (0.59-3.25)

1.66 (0.68-4.06)

1.39 (0.60-3.25)

Risk Factors

Placement in care

1.25 (0.59-2.67)

1.02 (0.47-2.22)

2.44* (1.09-5.46)

Family dysfunction

0.92 (0.81-1.05)

0.89+ (0.77-1.02)

0.96 (0.85-1.09)

Negative self-identity

1.00 (0.96-1.04)

1.01 (0.97-1.05)

0.98 (0.94-1.02)

School behavioral problems

1.05 (0.95-1.17)

1.06 (0.95-1.18)

1.07 (0.96-1.19)

Substance use versatility

1.10 (0.90-1.35)

1.14 (0.92-1.40)

1.08 (0.88-1.33)

Model Fit

-2LL = 730.09, χ2= 57.03, d f = 27, p < .01

Note. Stabilization (n = 48; 17%) was used as the reference category.

OR = Odds Ratio.

A foster care by gender moderation analysis showed that being male and having a history of foster care significantly increased the odds of being in the chronic offender category compared to the stabilization category (with male * non-CYIC as the reference category). Being female and CYIC was unrelated to offense pattern when compared against male and non-CYIC.

+ p < .10, * p < .05 ** p < .01 *** p < .001

Fig. 1 Crime mix of non-CYIC from ages 12-23

Fig 2. Crime mix of CYIC from ages 12-23

Acknowledgements: This work was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (435-2016-0962). A version of this paper was presented at the 2016 American Society of Criminology Conference. The authors would like to thank the Ministry of Child Development and the Ministry of Justice for allowing access to their data. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the agencies named.

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