To Give Youth a Chance for Improved Outcomes, We Should Recognize Foster Case and Juvenile Justice as the Educational Systems They Are

(June 7, 2023) Our foster care and juvenile justice systems are educational systems, and we must view them as such.

Look at what these systems fundamentally do.

Foster care is the state stepping in to help remove children from their homes (hopefully to reunify them) and taking responsibility for their upbringing.

Juvenile justice (at least the best actors in the system) approach youth and their families with the goal of helping young people learn and grow from their actions that have caused some kind of harm.

Raising children, and helping young people learn positive behaviors. Sounds like education.

The stories youth and their advocates tell within these systems also reveal that these systems teach young people deeper lessons about their identity and about their world based on how they are treated.

What does a child learn about themselves and what is possible when multiple families send them “back”? Or when their caseworker turns over time after time? Or when they transfer out of a residential facility and learn that they are two years further behind in their path to graduation than where they thought they were? What does a young person who is charged with a crime learn when their legal defense takes forever to respond, or when they are incarcerated in a decrepit facility?

Our foster care and juvenile justice systems are always teaching young people something. They are often unintended lessons by individual adults acting within these systems. It’s up to us, and to our policymakers, to decide what we hope young people learn from their time involved.

If we want young people to develop identities of self-worth and empowerment, and to believe that help will be there for them when they need it, then we must prioritize:

1) Investing in ways to prevent youth from entering these systems entirely. If we keep families stable, and invest upstream in diversion and community-based solutions when a young person makes a mistake, we will necessarily create more positive experiences for young people, and we will reduce the burdens imposed on these systems’ capacity by the sheer numbers of youth who are involved with them.

2) Dramatically increasing the capacity of professionals these systems to dedicate more time to building real relationships with young people they are charged with serving.

3) Strengthening the formal connections between these systems and K-12 education. Entering the foster care or juvenile justice systems should have no effect on a child’s pathway to graduation. If anything, these systems should offer more opportunities to recognize and address a young person’s previously unmet needs in order to accelerate their educational success.

It’s no secret that Michigan has a huge problem on its hands when it comes to raising and retaining our younger generations.

If we want to see as much improvement as possible in our state’s educational outcomes, and if we really want to see our youngest generations live a thriving life in Michigan, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, then we – policymakers, advocates, practitioners, all of us – must come to understand our foster care and juvenile systems as educational systems above all else.

Bobby Dorigo Jones is Michigan’s Children’s Vice President. He can be reached at