Housing Insecurity Is Linked with Increased Social System Involvement and Adverse Outcomes for Adolescents

Housing insecurity and adolescent well-being: Relationships with child welfare and criminal justice involvement
Katherine E Marçal, Kathryn Maguire-Jack
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Families of color and those with low incomes face high risk of experiencing housing cost burden, eviction, and housing instability. Housing instability can create challenges for adolescents, including higher levels of depression and psychological challenges, as well as behavioral issues. It can also cause increased interactions with other social systems, like the child welfare and criminal justice systems, which can further upend their lives.

In this study, researchers examine whether contact with these other systems cause poor adolescent outcomes for children who experienced housing insecurity as children, as opposed to directly linked to insecurity. They asked: Is housing insecurity at age 5 directly associated with delinquency or depression at age 15? And does maternal contact with the criminal justice or child welfare system mediate the link between housing insecurity and adolescent delinquency or depression?

Authors analyzed data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which followed about 5,000 at-risk families with children born 1998–2000 in 20 large American cities over 15 years. They also interviewed mothers in hospitals after giving birth, who afterward participated in interviews at regular intervals. They determined housing insecurity and contact with the criminal justice and child protective services through interviews with mothers, and mental health status was reported through youth self-reports. Researchers then used structural equation modeling to develop a measurement model that assessed direct and indirect pathways from housing insecurity to adolescent depression and delinquency via contact with the criminal justice and child welfare systems among families in which mothers retained at least partial custody of children (N = 2,892).

Findings suggest housing insecurity has lasting negative consequences for adolescents, with negative effects present 10 years following housing insecurity. Further research and analysis are needed to understand how much housing insecurity explains variations in outcomes.

Key findings
  • One in seven mothers reported having skipped a rent or mortgage payment in the past year because of inability to pay, and about one-tenth reported having doubled up with friends or family.
  • Housing insecurity for children at age 5 was associated with increased maternal contact with child welfare and criminal justice at age 9.
  • Housing insecurity was directly associated with both criminal justice contact and child welfare contact, controlling for race and ethnicity, adverse parenting, and substance use problems among mothers.
  • Criminal justice and child welfare contact were both directly related with adolescent delinquency
  • Housing insecurity was directly associated with adolescent depression at age 15 and indirectly with adolescent behavior problems at age 15 through contact with the child welfare and criminal justice systems.
Policy implications
  • Policy efforts should focus on upstream interventions to prevent housing insecurity, including expanding access to housing vouchers, increasingly the supply of affordable housing, and investing in underresourced communities. Interventions should also happen before interactions with other social services agencies.
  • Families need comprehensive supports to address poverty, housing insecurity, and emotional and behavioral health before families become system involved. Professionals with experience working in these communities should provide community education to prevent stigmatization and bias that could lead to reporting to the child welfare or justice systems.