Criminal Justice Section
Criminal Justice Magazine
Volume 17 Issue 3
Robert E. Shepherd, Jr.
Child Maltreatment and Delinquency
Over the years, lawyers in juvenile court, whether representing the state or the youth, have noticed the high incidence of childhood victimization of those young people facing charges of delinquency or charged as status offenders. The same phenomenon has been encountered by many lawyers practicing in the criminal courts as well. These experiences have led lawyers to wonder whether the congruence of victimization and offending is evidence of a link between the two or is purely a coincidence. In capital cases, defense lawyers generally search for evidence of a history of abuse or neglect to produce as mitigation during the sentencing stage—often enough that some authors have derisively referred to it as a convenient "abuse excuse." However, recent studies have more fully explored the possibility of a link, and they have contributed significantly to a growing body of literature about maltreatment and subsequent antisocial behavior. A recent monograph from the Child Welfare League of America, Child Maltreatment and Juvenile Delinquency: Raising the Level of Awareness (2002), gives an excellent overview of the issue, highlighting the research literature documenting the link and making some practical proposals for addressing the problem in a more systematic and effective fashion.
Recent studies about the link between abuse and delinquency present a very strong case for a strong connection between childhood abuse and neglect and later delinquent and criminal behavior. For example, three research projects from different geographical areas demonstrate a strong statistical correlation between such maltreatment and subsequent misbehavior. An early study conducted in a metropolitan county area in the Midwest by a pioneer in research on the "cycle of violence," Dr. Cathy S. Widom of the Department of Psychiatry at the New Jersey Medical School, showed that youth "who had been abused or neglected as children were more likely to be arrested as juveniles (27 percent versus 17 percent), adults (42 percent versus 33 percent) and for a violent crime (18 percent versus 14 percent)" than a comparable control group of young people with no comparable history of abuse or neglect. (Cathy S. Widom & Michael G. Maxfield, An Update on the "Cycle of Violence," Research in Brief, Nat’l Inst. of Just., February 2001, at 3, citing C.S. Widom, The Cycle of Violence, Research in Brief, Nat’l Inst. of Just., October1992.) These researchers also found that those with a history of being abused or neglected "were younger at first arrest (mean age 16.5 years versus 17.3 years), committed nearly twice as many offenses (mean age 2.4 versus 1.4), and were arrested more frequently (17 percent of abused and neglected cases versus 9 percent of companion cases had more that five arrests)." ( Id.)
A second study in New York by T.P. Thornberry and his colleagues as part of the Rochester Youth Development Study also found that abuse and neglect were significant risk factors for delinquency and self-reported violent behavior, even when other factors were controlled. (C. Smith & T. P. Thornberry, The Relationship Between Childhood Maltreatment and Adolescent Involvement in Delinquency, 31 Criminology 451 (1995).) This same study showed that as the frequency and severity of abuse or neglect increased, there were significant increases in the frequency of later offending. (B. T. Kelley, T. P. Thornberry & C. A. Smith, In the Wake of Childhood Maltreatment, OJJDP Juv. Just. Bull. (1997).) A third study was conducted in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, comparing maltreated children and those with no history of abuse or neglect. It demonstrated that the former had higher rates of delinquency and violence than the latter. (M. T. Zingraff, J. Leiter, K. A. Myers & M. C. Johnsen, Child Maltreatment and Youthful Problem Behavior, 31 Criminology 173 (1993).) Widom and Maxfield report that the National Institute of Justice is funding a fourth study in the northwestern region of the United States to compare with these three studies. A significant study of intensive aftercare pilot programs involving delinquent youth in three locales around the country showed that 45 percent of delinquent youth had a history of child abuse and neglect in Metropolitan Denver; 53 percent had such a background in Clark County, Nevada; and 29 percent of the youth in Norfolk, Virginia, had a maltreatment history. (Richard G. Wiebush, Betsie McNulty & Thao Le, Implementation of the Intensive Community-Based Aftercare Program, OJJDP Juv. Just. Bull. 8 (July 2000).)
Studies looking at the specific nature of the child maltreatment reveal some interesting findings. Although there is a stronger link between childhood physical abuse and later violent offending, "the group next most likely to be arrested for a violent offense were those who had experienced neglect in childhood, a finding of particular interest." (C. S. Widom, Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse—Later Criminal Consequences, Research in Brief, Nat’l Inst. of Just., March 1995, at 1.) This conclusion is consistent with other research showing that neglect is highly correlated to an array of subsequent developmental problems among its victims. ( Id.) The same study by Widom found that children who were the victims of sexual abuse did not have a higher risk for arrest as adults than the victims of other forms of abuse and neglect, except for the offense of prostitution. ( Id. at 2.) An especially interesting finding was that there was little evidence to support the suspected progression from child sexual abuse to adolescent running away to prostitution.
There are gender differences in the research findings. Although males have a much higher rate of engaging in adult criminal behavior, females who were subjected to childhood maltreatment were 73 percent more likely than control group women to offend later in life for a variety of nonviolent offenses, and 8.2 percent of the abused females engaged in subsequent violent behavior contrasted with 3.6 percent of those in the control group. (Widom & Maxfield, supra, 3–4.) Another recent report highlights these higher rates of subsequent offending by abused girls than boys. (Joy D. Osofsky, Addressing Youth Victimization, Coordinating Council on Juv. Jus. & Delinq. Prev. Action Plan Update, October 2001, at 3–4.)
Despite all these data about the link between abuse and neglect and offending, most children who are abused or neglected during childhood do not later engage in delinquent or criminal behavior. There are, thus, some protective or ameliorative factors that come into play to interrupt the link in these children. There may be some other things going on in their lives that lessen the impact of the abuse or neglect and protect them from becoming offenders. Kelley, Thornberry, and Smith have suggested that for these youth there may be "intervening factors, including the emergence of protective factors and the provision of effective services." (Kelley, Thornberry & Smith, supra, at 13.)
Link between abuse and delinquency
There are a number of implications of this research. First, there are the broader policy issues presented by the growing literature about the link. Certainly, initiatives to reduce the incidence of child maltreatment through primary and secondary prevention programs also have delinquency prevention effects as well, with even more significant cost reductions than would be derived from programs to reduce abuse and neglect. (Richard Wiebush, Raelene Freitage & Christopher Baird, Preventing Delinquency Through Improved Child Protection Services, OJJDP Juv. Just. Bull., July 2001.) It may be far more persuasive in convincing policymakers struggling with scarce resources that efforts to reduce abuse and neglect will also suppress delinquent and criminal behavior—especially violent antisocial activity. Integrating more closely the child protection systems and juvenile justice systems will have positive effects across the board, especially if there are earlier and more effective interventions with those children who have been abused. ( Id.) First, targeting services at the victims of abuse and neglect may serve to prevent later delinquent and criminal activity by those very same children. The more we know about risk and protective factors for this population of children, the more effective can be our interventions. Second, the results of the research can be treating victims more effectively through treatment programs informed by empirical research. And third, lawyers, judges, and others involved in the juvenile justice system need to be aware that there is no total disconnect between the child protection aspect of the process and the delinquency jurisdiction of the juvenile or family court. Many of the youth are the same, and the design of a dispositional program that will hold the youth accountable while also rehabilitating him or her may be dependent for its success on an awareness of a history of abuse or neglect. Lawyers, especially those involved in the representation of young people, need to secure a comprehensive enough history to identify those youth who were maltreated earlier in their childhood. They should explore the court history surrounding the abuse or neglect complaint and the social services investigation behind any court proceedings. Many abuse and neglect complaints do not result in court handling, and the lawyer should determine fully what occurred administratively, and especially what treatment services were provided to the child victim. Often, significant services will be provided to the abusers and to the families in an effort to reunite the family, but little in the way of services will be provided to the child. At the very least, policymakers and system participants need to be aware of the link between maltreatment and delinquency or crime, and they should act on the basis of this knowledge. The presence of the history of abuse does not provide an excuse for the behavior, but it may be very instructive about a possible course of treatment or rehabilitation to prevent further offending in the future.
Robert E. Shepherd, Jr ., is emeritus professor of law at the University of Richmond School of Law in Virginia. He is also a contributing editor to Criminal Justice magazine and former chair of the Section’s Juvenile Justice Committee.