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A new approach to helping foster kids in trouble with the law

Anna and Luis Oropeza settled in a home on the western edge of Coeur 'd Alene and are raising two African-American foster kids and a Latina child. Kirk Siegler/NPR

Loyola Law School is preparing to launch a pilot program to help so-called "crossover kids" in Los Angeles County – children who are in both the foster care and juvenile justice systems. The program will use multidisciplinary teams to steer the young people away from incarceration and towards a high school diploma.

"They are the most at-risk of at-risk kids," said Loyola Professor Sean Kennedy, executive director of Loyola’s Center for Juvenile Law and Poverty. "Foster youth already have the deck stacked against them when it comes to the criminal justice system." 

Under a new program funded by a $1 million grant from the Everychild Foundation, Loyola plans to train 36 law students to assist 300 youth over the course of three years. The Loyola students will work as part of collaborative teams that will include education advocates and social workers.

"We have the power to fulfill a critical unmet need: the holistic representation of foster youth who have been charged with crimes," Kennedy said. An overwhelming majority of these kids in L.A. County are African-American or Latino.

There are no good estimates of how many foster kids are caught up in the juvenile justice system - the county and state don't keep such records, Kennedy said. Estimates range from 7,000 to 20,000 statewide.

Many crossover kids have been removed from abusive homes only to be transferred from one foster home to another, which almost always means a new school. Loyola’s Center for Juvenile Law and Policy regular represents these kids.

"We recently represented a foster kid who had changed schools 16 times," said Kennedy.

The girl acted out – stealing a cellphone in one home and throwing a clipboard in another. But locking her up wasn’t the answer, he said. She needed to stay in one school until she graduated and get help dealing with her emotional trauma. Loyola made those things happen, and today the girl is studying to be a paramedic, said Kennedy.

"It’s amazing how much success we can have if we address the problems of at-risk youth early on," he said.