NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Almost 90% of kids who move homes five or more times while in the foster care system will end up in the criminal justice system. 

It’s a statistic the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth (TCCY) said holds true for numerous children in the state as reports show Tennessee has the highest rate of foster care instability in the nation.

“In the foster care system, a huge risk factor is multiple moves,” said Kylie Graves, communications and policy specialist for the TCCY. “33% of our kids who are in foster care are going to move three or four times within their first year. Nationally, that number is 14%. So, it’s way higher.”

It’s not the only factor in rising juvenile crime. School threats, carjackings and shootings continue to happen across the state, with data from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation showing juveniles committed almost 10% of violent crimes in 2021— a 16% increase from 2020.

In Clarksville, Scott Beaubien, spokesman from the city’s police department, said “car hopping was rampant this last summer,” with 71 vehicle thefts involving juveniles reported over the past year. Police have also noted an uptick in guns being stolen out of vehicles.

Graves said tracking youth justice data in Tennessee can be difficult partly because of variances in methods of reporting between agencies, but national studies help paint a larger picture of the issue— one she believes has many underlying causes.

“Youth justice data is really hard to come by for a multitude of reasons,” she said. “You’re dealing with youth who need their information protected.”

A study of high-risk offenders found a correlation between adverse childhood experiences and the likelihood of teens ending up in state custody.

Looking into the history of teens charged with violent offenses, children who were physically abused were 50% more likely to be charged with assault, Graves said.

Drug exposure in their household increases their risk of incarceration by 66%, and kids who are sexually abused are 350% more likely to go on to commit sexual assault. Richard Kennedy, TCCY executive director, said education and availability of community resources also plays a role.

Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth Communications and Policy Specialist Kylie Graves (left) and Executive Director Richard Kennedy (right) at their office in Nashville.

“When we go back and we look at the root causes of juvenile crime, I think we have to think about it systemically as well,” Kennedy said. “So, we have to look at the neighborhoods and communities in which children are growing up.”

Recreational and school activities can provide a positive environment for children who have experienced adversity, Kennedy said. Without those safety nets or access to resources, some kids fall through the cracks.

Another known correlation is mental health diagnoses. Graves said many teens in youth detention centers have been found to suffer from ADHD and anxiety. The number of children struggling with mental health also rose in 2020.

“All of those are risk factors,” Graves said. “And we know that there’s such an importance in kids having communities that they can engage in, and productive activities and adults that support them and care for their wellbeing.”

Graves said the TCCY is still examining the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on juvenile crime rates. Reports show a dip in crime in 2020 followed by a jump back to crime levels seen in 2017 this past year. Graves said the murder rate among youth spiked in 2018 and 2021.

Many police departments in Middle Tennessee also noticed an uptick around that time. In a Feb. 2019 interview following the death of a promising Nashville musician, Hendersonville Police Chief Mickey Miller told WKRN, “I don’t think I have ever seen it this bad.”

“We’re really trying to watch it and see is this just that 2020 was an unnatural dip?” Graves said. “Is this all of the social economic, mental health challenges of the pandemic lashing out, and we’re seeing that in our youth?”

Graves said high-profile crimes have brought heightened awareness to juvenile crime rates this year. While she sees that awareness as beneficial, Graves said she believes the solution should be geared more toward rehabilitation than punishment.

“I think it can be beneficial realizing the challenges that our young people are facing and the services they need so that this doesn’t continue,” Graves said. “But at the same time, we don’t want that heightened awareness of an uptick in crime to push us into a place that is punitive and not effective.”

Once in the criminal justice system, it is much harder for teens to transition back into society, said Kennedy, who referred to the youth justice system as a “maze.” While there is limited data on recidivism, Graves said most states report between 50% to 70% will reoffend within three years.

“It seems to be there are a lot of ways to come into contact with that system, but once inside that maze, there are very few exits to be able to get out of that and be able to step down to receive less intensive services,” Kennedy said.

Many justice-involved youth struggle with having missed school and feeling disconnected from friends and family once they return home, which can lead to further issues, said Graves, who added that part of tackling the rise in crime will mean further assessing support services.

“A lot of times, and some of it has to do with courts losing jurisdiction of kids once they turn 19, but they kind of finish out their time and then they’re back in a community that’s moved on and they don’t know where they fit in that anymore,” she said.

Kennedy said he is optimistic about the future of youth justice reform. In 2018, the Juve­nile Jus­tice Reform Act provided $4.5 million that was allocated to smaller, rural courts across the state to create additional mental health services.

The act also established a data system that Kennedy said will help officials better understand the needs of justice-involved youth and create more evidence-based services. Currently, Kennedy said it can be difficult for youth to access services in a “coordinated way.”

“I think we’re going to be able to know more going forward,” he said. “We have to have a better understanding of the specific needs of the children and youth that are involved with the juvenile justice system because they’re going to have different needs. It’s not a one size fits all.”

Whether they realize it or not, community members can also have a big impact on justice-involved youth, Kennedy said. Faith-based organizations and local nonprofits play a large roll in connecting teens with caring adults who can have a positive impact on their life trajectory.

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Some opportunities include serving as a court appointed special advocate or volunteering with juvenile court systems. Organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters and Boys & Girls Clubs of America also offer mentoring opportunities.

“I would just want the community to know that there are opportunities to engage and to provide mentoring and support those children who may not have had that support in their home, or in their communities,” Kennedy said. “We know that a safe nurturing relationship with an adult makes all of the difference in the world in a child’s life.”