So much attention has been given by researchers and professionals to the critical link between child abuse and juvenile delinquency that most would assume that child abuse causes later juvenile delinquency and wonder why there is still a discussion of the issue. Early research suggested that this was a simple relationship. Widom (1989) and Smith and Thornberry (1995) found evidence of this relationship initially. However, more recent studies have found that the relationship between child abuse and juvenile delinquency is more multifaceted and intriguing than originally thought. Additionally, newer studies have begun to recognize the association between children’s abuse within the family and exposure to domestic violence and the development of juvenile delinquency. This research paper will delineate and explain the intricate relationship between child abuse and juvenile delinquency, as well as describe the latest information regarding the relationship between youth exposure to domestic violence and the later development of juvenile delinquency.
II. Child Abuse
III. Types of Child Abuse Relating to Types of Juvenile Delinquency
IV. Severity of Abuse
V. Persistent or Repeat Abuse
VI. Adolescent Abuse
VII. Theoretical Foundation for the Relationship between Child Abuse and Juvenile Delinquency
VIII. Exposure to Domestic Violence
IX. Exposure to Domestic Violence and Child Abuse
X. Risk and Protective Factors for Juvenile Delinquency: The Context of Child Abuse and Exposure to Domestic Violence
One common discrepancy found throughout the literature in this area is the lack of consistent definitions among terms. Child abuse, juvenile delinquency, and domestic violence are described and labeled differently within research studies, resources on the Internet, and searches throughout university libraries. Oftentimes domestic violence is termed family violence, spousal abuse, or intimate partner violence, whereas child maltreatment may be defined and categorized into specific forms of abuse. As broad as the term child abuse is, there are still wavering discrepancies among the definitions of sexual abuse, neglect, physical abuse, and emotional and/or psychological maltreatment.
The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) is the law (P.L. 93–247) that provides a foundation for a national definition of child abuse and neglect. CAPTA defines child abuse and neglect as ‘‘at a minimum, any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker, which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.’’
Sexual abuse is ‘‘inappropriate adolescent or adult sexual behavior with a child. It includes fondling a child’s genitals, making the child fondle the adult’s genitals, intercourse, incest, rape, sodomy, exhibitionism, sexual exploitation, or exposure to pornography.’’ Physical abuse is ‘‘the inflicting of a non-accidental physical injury upon a child. This may include burning, hitting, punching, shaking, kicking, beating, or otherwise harming a child. It may, however, have been the result of over-discipline or physical punishment that is inappropriate to the child’s age.’’ Psychological maltreatment is ‘‘a pattern of caregiver behavior or extreme incidents that convey to children that they are worthless, flawed, unloved, unwanted, endangered, or only of value to meeting another’s needs. This can include parents or caretakers using extreme or bizarre forms of punishment or threatening or terrorizing a child. The term ‘psychological maltreatment’ is also known as emotional abuse, verbal abuse, or mental abuse.’’ Neglect is ‘‘the failure to provide for the child’s basic needs. Neglect can be physical, educational, or emotional. Physical neglect can include not providing adequate food or clothing, appropriate medical care, supervision, or proper weather protection (i.e., providing a heated living environment or coats when it is cold). Educational neglect includes failure to provide appropriate schooling or special educational needs, or allowing excessive truancies. Psychological neglect includes the lack of any emotional support and love, chronic inattention to the child, or exposure to spouse abuse or drug and alcohol abuse’’ (Administration for Children and Families 2005). Finally, a juvenile delinquent is a minor who commits one or more froms of antisocial behavior. Most state codes define juvenile delinquency as behavior that is in violation of the criminal code and is committed by a youth who has not reached adult age (Roberts 2004).
In 2000, there were over 880,000 reports of child maltreatment to Child Protective Services (Administration for Children and Families 2005). Fifty-two percent of the victims were female, 55 percent were white, 28 percent were black, 12 percent were Hispanic, and 5 percent were other races. Nineteen percent of victims were age two or younger, 52 percent were age seven or younger, and 7 percent were age sixteen or older. The vast majority (80 percent) of perpetrators were parents of the victims. An estimated 1,077 children died as the result of maltreatment and approximately 16 percent of victims in substantiated or indicated cases were removed from their homes. The most common form of child abuse is neglect, followed by physical, and then sexual abuse (Snyder and Sickmund 1999).
A growing body of knowledge suggests that child abuse is a causal contributor to many emotional and behavioral problems, including juvenile delinquency (Lemmon 1999). The long-standing effect of child abuse in juveniles has been well documented, and previous studies suggest a pattern of abuse and neglect as a precursor to later offending behavior in both adolescents and adults (Crittenden and Ainsworth 1989; Smith and Thornberry 1995; Widom 1989). Studies have found that abused youth are referred to the juvenile justice system more often than their non-abused and non-neglected counterparts and are also significantly younger at the time of initial referral (Lemmon 1999). In addition, abused youth are more often persistent and violent offenders as compared with non-abused youth, who are more likely infrequent, low-risk offenders (Lemmon 1999). Boswell (1995) found that 72 percent of violent youth residing within the juvenile justice system had experienced emotional, physical, sexual, or ritual-type abuse, with 27 percent having been subjected to two or more types.
Child abuse does help shed light on why some juveniles engage in delinquency. However, not all children who are abused go on to engage in juvenile delinquency, and not all juvenile delinquents have histories of child abuse. This information suggests that child abuse by itself is not a cause of juvenile delinquency. Rather, a more complex explanation is required.
Data support the conclusion that there are many common pathways, not just one specific variable, which may lead a youth toward delinquent behavior. Influential factors include: child abuse victimization; exposure to domestic violence; association with delinquent peers; parents with poor parenting skills; lack of parental bonding; availability of drugs and firearms; and community disorganization (Hawkins, Herrenkohl, Farrington, Brewer, Catalano, and Harachi 1998). These factors are termed risk factors; the more risk factors the youth or family has, the higher the likelihood of the youth engaging in delinquency. These risk factors are interrelated. For instance, the availability of drugs and firearms is related to high levels of community disorganization; poor parenting skills open up the opportunity for the youth to associate with delinquent peers. Consequently, child abuse is one risk factor for juvenile delinquency, but certainly not the only one. Risk factors should also not be confused with predetermination, in that having a risk factor does not mean that one will automatically become a juvenile delinquent. Many children who are abused do not engage in delinquency when they reach adolescence, and some have no long-term effects from the abuse.
Types of Child Abuse Relating to Types of Juvenile Delinquency
All abuse is not the same. Various forms of abuse result in different reactions and behaviors by youth. The tendency for persons to commit crime will differ based on the specific maltreatment experienced. Studies illustrate that experiencing specific child maltreatment can justifiably result in the exhibition of the similar type of offending behavior later on (Hamilton, Falshaw, and Browne 2002). For example, Dutton and Hart (1992) reported that a childhood of physical abuse could possibly progress in comparable types of criminal activity. Whereas those who experience sexual abuse may later become sexually violent, a person may not become a sexual abuser unless he or she has experienced some form of sexual trauma (Bagley, Wood, and Young 1994; Dutton and Hart 1992; Ford and Linney 1995; Prendergast 1991).
Children who are victims of neglect are at the highest risk of becoming delinquent, with the highest probability, 1 in 10, in becoming involved in criminal activity, whereas physical abuse victims were reported to have a 9.3 percent chance (1 in 11) of becoming delinquent. Physical abuse victims, though, do engage in more aggressive and violent types of delinquency (Zingraff, Leiter, Johnson, and Myers 1994), and physical abuse lends a unique risk to girls for violent offending, in that physically abused girls are over seven times more likely to commit a violent offense than nonabused girls (Herrera and McCloskey 2001).
Herrenkohl, Huang, Tajima, and Whitney (2003) found abusive discipline to be as detrimental as physical abuse. This type of abuse included paddling or severe spanking which left marks or bruises. Children disciplined in this manner developed violent attitudes, later became involved with violent peers, and subsequently exhibited violent behavior of their own.
Sexual abuse victims often engage later in nonaggressive sexual offenses compared with physical abuse victims, who evince higher aggression (Mouzakitis 1981). However, there appears to be a direct association between sexual abuse and delinquency in girls. Fifty-six percent of the girls studied in California’s juvenile justice system reported past sexual abuse (Acoca 1998), and Finkelhor and Baron (1986) found sexual abuse rates for girls in juvenile justice and mental health settings to be substantially higher than those in the general population (Okamoto and Chesney-Lind 2004). Studies have found that girls contend with sexually abusive homes by running away, thereby exposing themselves to further abuse, associations with delinquent peers, or survival delinquency (stealing, etc.) (Chesney-Lind and Sheldon 2003).
It is important to note, however, that few if any of these abuses occur separately and apart from one another; rather, most abused children suffer from a combination of multiple maltreatments. For example, physical abuse usually is accompanied by verbal taunts and name-calling. Ney, Fung, and Wickett (1994) studied forms of child maltreatment including neglect and physical, sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse and found that less than 5 percent of occurrences of these types of abuse transpired alone. Researchers Smith, Berkman, and Fraser (1980) suggest that experiencing both physical abuse and neglect leads to a greater propensity to commit violent offenses.
A more comprehensive understanding of child abuse suggests that various types of abuse occur simultaneously. Those who experience multiple forms of abuse simultaneously are at greater risk for later delinquent behavior and other negative outcomes (Hamilton, Falshaw, and Browne 2002). However, it is unlikely that a specific type of child abuse would transform a juvenile into a specific type of offender.
Severity of Abuse
The type of abuse is an important risk factor, but the severity of the abuse is also critical in understanding the nexus between child abuse and juvenile delinquency. Unfortunately, not much is known about the relationship between the severity of abuse and the later development of delinquent behaviors. Initial findings suggest that more extensively or harshly mistreated youth consistently exhibit higher rates of delinquency; however, there is not a linear relationship between the phenomena (Smith and Thornberry 1995). It is also important to note that youth react differently to abuse. Some are deeply affected by more minor forms, while others seem able to withstand and adapt to more severe forms. Another difficulty in understanding this relationship is attempting to measure the severity of abuse and obtaining the precise amount of severity as seen by the youth. In other words, who is to determine how severe abuse is? Clearly, further research is needed.
Persistent or Repeat Abuse
While being abused on one occasion is cause for concern, many youth are repeatedly or persistently abused by the same or multiple perpetrators. Child Protective Units have distinguished approximately one quarter of their case loads as being children who will be revictimized. Once a child has been victimized twice, the risk of another victimization is then doubled (Hamilton, Falshaw, and Browne 2002). Studies have found that youth who had experienced persistent abuse were more likely to engage in more severe delinquency than those who had one abuse incident. Additionally, youth victimized by different perpetrators both inside and outside the family were more likely to engage in violent and/or sexually offending behavior (Hamilton, Falshaw, and Browne 2002). Some scholars postulate that each subsequent abuse exacerbates the effects from the previous incidents, placing the youth at further risk for serious long-term effects, including serious delinquency.
Though most studies have focused on the relationship between child abuse and juvenile delinquency, adolescent abuse is receiving increased attention, and further attention to this topic is warranted. Official estimates indicate that the amount of adolescent abuse equals or exceeds the amount of child abuse, with approximately 47 percent of the known cases of abuse being perpetrated against adolescents even though they account for only 38 percent of the total population of people under age eighteen (Garbarino 1989). Abused adolescents are more likely than non-abused adolescents to be arrested (Ireland, Smith, and Thornberry 2002), and researchers hypothesize that abused adolescents may translate experiences of maltreatment into delinquent behavior.
Abuse of children is relevant to delinquency by young adolescents, but does not have a strong correlation to offending by older youths. However, abuse of adolescents is a key explanatory factor of violence for both young and older adolescents (Benda and Corwyn 2002). On one hand, this suggests that abuse of young children does not necessarily have long-term devastating impacts—one cannot assume that all abused children will become adult offenders. However, it does suggest that adolescent abuse may have longer, more critical consequences and that persistent abuse occurring throughout childhood and adolescence may have a dire projection for adulthood.
Theoretical Foundation for the Relationship between Child Abuse and Juvenile Delinquency
The social development model (SDM) is a comprehensive and integrative theory which incorporates suppositions from social control theory, social learning theory, and differential association theory. The theory attempts to more specifically explain the pathways from child abuse to juvenile delinquent behavior (Catalano and Hawkins 1996; Herrenkohl, Huang, Tajima, and Whitney 2003). SDM suggests that children learn behaviors and attitudes at an early age and then find like-minded individuals, groups, and units to interact and bond with. These friends or groups further reward or punish particular behaviors and attitudes. The bond to the group becomes very important and affects behavior by influencing how the youth thinks about the costs or benefits of any behavior.
In a positive light, children learning positive behaviors and healthy attitudes from their families will more likely find positive friends to interact and bond with. These friends will support further healthy behaviors and punish negative behaviors and attitudes, and this bonding within the group will act as an outside parental control. Strong bonds formed with pro-social peers or supports (such as school or church) will lessen the likelihood of risk for negative behaviors.
Herrenkohl et al. (2003) hypothesized that physical child abuse may generate negative behaviors and attitudes in children and negatively impact the child– parent attachment. This may weaken the youth’s commitment to pro-social activities and attitudes and increase the association with antisocial peers. Attachments to antisocial groups and peers directly elevate the risk for negative behaviors via modeling, reinforcement, and bonding. Bonding with these peers reduces the likelihood of positive influences as well as the likelihood of behaving positively. Clearly, all youth will have positive and negative influences in their lives, but the balance of pro-social and antisocial influences within a youth’s life will determine his or her preponderance for engaging in either positive or negative behaviors. Studies have supported this theory, finding that abused youth are more supportive of the use of violence and have more violent attitudes, which in turn is predictive of involvement with antisocial peers and violent behavior (Hawkins et al. 1998).
Exposure to Domestic Violence
It is estimated that 10–20 percent of American children are at risk for exposure to domestic violence each year (Carlson 2000). Exposure to domestic violence can entail witnessing firsthand violence in the home, hearing violence, being in a parent’s arms while they are being hurt, being held hostage during the incident, being forced to participate in the abuse of a parent, and/or being used to spy on a parent (Edleson 1999). Children who are exposed to violence in the home have been found to exhibit more aggressive and delinquent behaviors and more anxiety, post-traumatic stress symptoms, depression, and temperament problems than their counterparts who did not experience violence in the home (Edleson 1999; Hughes 1998; Maker, Kemmelmeier, and Peterson 1998; Sternberg et al. 1993). In addition, children exposed to violence are more likely to have increased risks for drug and alcohol problems (Berenson, Wiemann, and McCombs 2001).
Any exposure or combination of exposures can be damaging and may result in long-term negative effects and trauma. However, exposure to domestic violence has differing impacts on children, based on the circumstances of the violence and/or the characteristics of the child. For instance, children who are exposed to frequent and severe forms of violence, who fail to observe parents engage in appropriate conflict resolution, who are younger, who have fewer coping skills and/or a support network tend to have more distress and long-term problems than children who do not meet these criteria (Carlson 2000; Edleson 1999; Hughes, Graham-Bermann, and Gruber 2001).
There also appears to be varying degrees of specific responses to each parent. A child’s relationship with his/her battering father can be confusing. The child expresses affection toward the father while simultaneously feeling hatred, pain, resentment, and disappointment regarding the offending behavior (Peled 1998). A child’s relationship with his/her mother is a potential and significant factor in determining the effects of exposure to domestic violence. Some researchers report that a mother’s poor mental health functioning may have a negative impact on how the child experiences violence in the home. A negative bond between mother and child may further exacerbate the effects of the exposure and again leave the child open to relationships with negative peers or adults.
Exposure to Domestic Violence and Child Abuse
Many times exposure to domestic violence in itself can be labeled as child neglect or abuse. But domestic violence and physical child abuse are also known to overlap (Appel and Holden 1998) and can occur as separate incidents over time. Evidence suggests that youth exposed to both domestic violence and child abuse, either independently or at the same time, exhibit more serious problem behaviors and have been found to be more violent than those who experience only one from of trauma (Carlson 1991; Edleson 1999; Hughes 1998; O’keefe 1994b; Silvern et al. 1995; Sternberg et al. 1993). Childhood abuse and exposure to domestic violence also plays a role in predicting violent behavior in adults. For example, studies suggest that male batterers tend to have been raised in homes where domestic violence occurred and were found to have been seriously physically abused and/or to have witnessed weapons violations between adults (Rivera and Widom 1990; Rosenbaum and O’Leary 1981; Spaccarelli et al. 1995; Widom 1989).
Exposure to domestic violence results in traumatic effects on children that are distinct from the effects of child abuse, but multiple exposures to violence and victimization interact and intensify the negative impact on children. In another words, the more exposure to violence children have over the course of their development, the more likely they are to engage in violent offending as adolescents and later as adults (Nofziger and Kurtz 2005). To predict juvenile offending, one must look at the volume of exposure, severity, and types of victimization experienced throughout childhood. This exposure may lead to violent behavior in a number of ways. First, exposure to violence may lead to an increased susceptibility to a violent belief system. This in turn perpetuates and justifies violent behavior as acceptable and/or provides an appropriate resolve during conflict. Also, a youth’s social support network that involves peers who use or are involved in violence may promote the youth’s perception of acceptable violent behavior as well as provide opportunities for violence to occur (Nofziger and Kurtz 2005).
In addition, repeated exposure also teaches children to handle anger and disagreements by using violence as opposed to pro-social tactics. Frequent reinforcement of this concept by family and/or friends makes changing behaviors more difficult later on.
Risk and Protective Factors for Juvenile Delinquency: The Context of Child Abuse and Exposure to Domestic Violence
Risk factors are behaviors, characteristics, and/or conditions present in the child, parent, family, or community that will likely contribute to the development of juvenile delinquency, while protective factors are strengths and resources that appear to mediate or serve as a ‘‘buffer’’ against risk factors. As mentioned earlier, child abuse and exposure to domestic violence are both strong risk factors for the later development of juvenile delinquency. The relationship, however, is complex and not easily explained. One of the reasons for this complexity is that child abuse and exposure to domestic violence happen in conjunction with other risk and protective factors which may exacerbate or diminish the effects of violence on the child. To fully understand the intricate relationship between child abuse and exposure to violence and juvenile delinquency, it is important to delineate these risk and protective factors.
On an individual level, risk factors for juvenile delinquency include: hyperactivity, concentration problems, restlessness, risk taking, aggressiveness, delinquent peers, gang membership, and beliefs and attitudes favorable to antisocial behavior. The more risk factors a child has, the more likely he or she will be to develop delinquency. When these risk factors are added to exposure to domestic violence or child abuse, the cumulative effects can be serious.
On a family level, risk factors include: parental criminality, poor parenting practices, low levels of parental involvement, poor family bonding, high family conflict, and, as mentioned previously, child abuse and domestic violence. Clearly, the development of delinquent behavior becomes more likely if several of these factors are present concurrently.
On the community level, risk factors include: poverty, community disorganization, availability of drugs and firearms, adults involved in crime, and community violence. The likelihood of developing delinquent behaviors increases as risk factors are compounded and interact to exacerbate the situation. Consider a child who experiences child abuse who also has difficulties with hyperactivity and lives in poverty in a violent neighborhood. In addition, the type, timing, and severity of the abuse also influence the likelihood of this child developing delinquent behaviors.
Risk factors, however, do not explain the entire context of the correlation between child abuse, exposure to domestic violence, and the later development of juvenile delinquency. Protective factors are also present in this context and work to mitigate or buffer the child from the effects of negative risk factors. Some of these protective factors include: bonding to one positive adult, a support system, small family size, good parenting skills, and lack of criminal behavior and/or substance abuse by parents. Studies have indicated that a secure, warm relationship with a positive adult can significantly buffer the effects of multiple risk factors and can help children adjust to negative life events (Kruttschnitt, Ward, and Sheble 1987). It is preferable that bonding occur with the parent or guardian, but it can also occur with another positive adult, such as a teacher. Likewise, a positive support system such as friends, relatives, or community who are able to encourage and sustain the child can also mediate the effects of various risk factors. In addition, small family size (fewer than four children) can help the child by allowing ample time for individual bonding and interacting with parents. A smaller family size also reduces parental stress and encourages positive parenting practices, which can help mediate difficulties and assist children in adapting to changes and solving problems. Positive parenting practices include being aware of appropriate child development and using positive tactics to illicit positive behaviors. Finally, parents who have attitudes and beliefs contrary to violence, criminal behavior, and substance use and who express these attitudes to their children help shield them from negative influences.
Risk and protective factors help shed light on the relationship between child abuse, exposure to domestic violence, and the later development of delinquency by highlighting the complexity of the context in which children develop. There will always be children who develop delinquent behaviors after exposure to minimal risk factors and others who do not develop these behaviors despite compounding risks. It is not a clear, linear relationship, and this makes prediction of later juvenile delinquency difficult at best.
This research paper provides a general overview of the association between childhood abuse, exposure to domestic violence, and the later development of juvenile delinquency. The information is not conclusive or definite; there are many questions remaining. However, it provides an initial understanding of the complexity of this relationship. Child abuse and exposure to domestic violence are each risk factors for the later development of juvenile delinquency. However, neither is necessarily a direct causal explanation for delinquency, in that not all children abused or exposed to violence will engage in delinquency, while some children who were never abused or exposed to violence will develop delinquent behaviors. Studies have indicated that neglect and physical abuse are particularly potent risk factors for later violent offenses, while the relationship between sexual abuse and later offenses is still unclear.
Child abuse and exposure to domestic violence should also be considered on a continuum rather than as a dichotomy of abused/exposed or not abused/not exposed. The number of times a child was abused, whether there were multiple types of abuse (verbal and physical, etc.), how severe the abuse was, and how long the abuse persisted are all crucial variables in predicting the likelihood of developing delinquent behaviors. Finally, it should be recognized that multiple risk and protective factors are constantly interacting and provide a context for understanding the development of juvenile delinquency. It is not the expected path for a child subjected to abuse or exposed to domestic violence to develop delinquent behaviors, yet this does occur in many instances when the context is especially dire or additional risk factors are present.
Also check the list of domestic violence research topics or all criminal justice research topics.
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