The Link Between Child Abuse and Delinquency

Introduction

There is an increase in the number of children being exposed to maltreatment, assault, and witnessing domestic and community violence. This exposure can have a number of deleterious and long-lasting effects on teenagers such as aggressive behavior, depression, anxiety, lower levels of social competence and self-esteem, poor academic performance, post-traumatic stress symptoms and it can affect their behavior, their problem-solving skills, and their ability to modulate their feelings and reactions, and eventually lead to patterns of conflict and aggression toward others.

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It is important therefore that parents, teachers, counselors, caregivers, and other professionals understand the significant effect that victimization has on the behavior, attitudes, and functioning of adolescents, and what they can do to mitigate its effects. Parenting practices are the surest identifier of children who may be troublesome in the future. Five elements of parenting that can be positive or negative influences include Discipline( fair and consistent or harsh and punitive), Monitoring( watchful awareness of the child’s actions or total disregard), Reinforcement(positive recognition for achievements or constant negative attention for acting out), Involvement (participation in activities with the child or isolation of adult from child) and Problem-solving( productive mechanisms for resolving issues or negative modeling of violence and conflict)(Walker,1994). A study conducted on 1,575 cases followed from childhood through young adulthood showed that being victimized or maltreated as a child increased the probability of arrest as a juvenile by 59 percent, as an adult by 28 percent, and for a violent crime by 30 percent. These children were younger at the time of their first arrest, committed almost two times as many offenses, and were arrested severally. Physically abused and neglected (versus sexually abused) children were the most likely to be arrested later for a violent crime. (Widom, 1995; Widom and Maxfield, 2001)

Developmental studies have shown that children adapt to the world through early experiences with the people they grow up around which tend to facilitate later adaptations to real-life situations. Positive experiences could mean successful adaptations, whereas negative experiences may lead to the emergence of psychopathological outcomes. Families, where children are abused, have been proven to provide lesser supports and opportunities for children to learn to effectively function outside the family setup and are unable to provide an environment that leads to normal development. Initial family conditions are the major factors that turn juveniles toward anti-social activities and, eventually, crime.

Children who are brought up in abusive families that lack behavioral role models learn to adapt to this setup and try to replicate this setting at school, and although it works to some degree, it causes rejection. This in turn leads to the formation of a group of social misfits who have grown up in similar situations and thus think alike. (Walker, 1994)

The cycle of victimization and subsequent violence

The likelihood that an abused child will become an abusing adult is aptly summarized in the cycle of violence which goes on to show that children react to quarreling parents by been difficult, and generally, becoming much more anti-social than their peers (Widom, 1989).

Various researchers have studied this issue and come up with different explanations for the relationship. Some researchers point out that violent victimization and violent offending share many of the same risk factors. Other researchers note that victims and victimizers are exposed to similar homogenous social, situational, and environmental traits and livelihoods (Fagan, Piper, and Cheng, 1987). Criminal behavior evolves in the context of a subculture and is learned through interaction with others, especially delinquent peers. It has been observed that violence may be learned through experiencing it or observing it and that it may be transmitted from one generation to the next in a “cycle of violence” which basically put states that “violence begets violence”. The theory suggests that abused children become abusers themselves and that victims of violence become violent adults.

Solutions to break the connection between abuse and delinquency

  1. Improve prevention of victimization. This can be done by strengthening family functioning. The philosophy here is that keeping children safe from abuse and neglect is the responsibility of the entire community. The long-term goal of such strategies is to educate the entire community to create social change that is intolerant of child maltreatment. Public education on child abuse can be achieved through increasing parents’ knowledge and understanding of how children develop and what to expect at each stage of development, enhancing bonding and communication between parents and their children, increasing parents’ skills in coping with the stresses of caring for children with special needs and increasing access to social and health-care services for all community members.
  2. Instead of largely educating young people on sexual-related issues in schools and society in general, for instance, advising young people to abstain or use protection during sex, emphasis should be on the importance of the institution of marriage which is the foundation of society. Today’s youth are shunning the institution with the number of single parents rising every day. This could be as a result of their childhood experiences which could include child abuse, spouse battering among other social problems that may discourage these young people from pursuing marriage.
  3. Intervene early with juvenile victims. An abused child is likely to become an offending juvenile in the future. Therefore it is important to focus counseling and other early interventions on abuse victims. Given that there is some evidence to suggest that offending and subsequent victimization occur fairly soon after maltreatment, interventions may be most successful in preventing future offending and victimization if they are applied relatively soon after the initial abuse.
  4. Improve reporting of youth victimization. Numerous studies have shown that the majority of victimizations and maltreatment of juveniles are never reported to police or relevant authorities. Contributing factors for not reporting may include adolescent concerns about personal autonomy, fears of being blamed or not taken seriously, fears of retaliation, fears of being punished for associating with deviant peers, family concerns about involving their child in the justice system, and the perception of both youth and adults that offenses against youth are not real crimes. The justice system can change this by emphasizing its interest in assisting juvenile victims, removing the disincentives to reporting, making staff more available and accessible, and changing the way people think about crimes against juveniles. Communities need to provide incentives to report, including information to help youth protect themselves from future victimization or from retaliation.
  5. Understand just how extensively the systems already in place e.g. Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice overlap. The State ends up not being able to perform its juvenile crime prevention duties due to poor coordination among the several bodies it has mandated. These bodies should be consolidated to form one at the highest level of government that can better focus on this particular duty.
  6. Decrease the likelihood of a reoccurrence of child abuse or neglect, perhaps by placing the child with other caretakers and/or incarceration of the perpetrators. The abusive parents or offenders could be placed in rehabilitation centers, and intensive treatment and therapy be sought and offered both for the offender and the abused child.
  7. Increase awareness that various kinds of juvenile victimization are criminal offenses and can be punished by law. Public awareness must be conducted to educate parents and their children about the importance of reporting victimization and abuse. Too many youths are reluctant to report because of fear of being deemed as weak while many adults are unaware or ignorant of the consequences of youth victimization and abuse.

Conclusion

We cannot pinpoint a single factor or experience to be the reason for delinquent behavior among youth but when a young person is traumatized by a violent experience, either as a witness or a victim, the chances of them replicating this kind of behavior clearly increase which in turn increases the likelihood of engaging in violent behavior and/or being victimized again. Comprehensive strategies, snippets of which can be implemented by various levels of government and society, are the only hope of shielding juveniles against being victims of violence of all kinds. Detection of these victims and responding in time to offset the adverse consequences of victimization, along with preventing future problems, for instance, substance abuse, mental instability, and suicide will decrease the instances of juvenile violence and crime in society as a whole.

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The juvenile crime problem is not necessarily the sole responsibility of the State since factors at home are the main causes of a child’s involvement in crime whose impact is mostly felt in and around the neighborhood. Therefore, most of the apprehensions, prosecutions, and sentencing are carried out by the local law enforcement offices. Only a negligible percentage of juveniles arrested end up in state institutions. The State should encourage local solutions and remedies and its role, apart from staging the juvenile justice system, should only be as a policy leader and facilitator to these local institutions.

Prevention and early intervention work better and are cheaper than treatment and they hold far more promise than good rehabilitation programs for actually reducing crime. Children are much harder to “fix” once they have become criminals than they are when they first show signs of deviant or anti-social behavior.

References

Fagan, J., Piper, E.S., and Cheng, Y. (1987). Contributions of victimization to delinquency in inner cities. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.

Walker, H.M. (1994) “Path to Prison: Where Does It Begin?” Youth Violence Meeting, Western Legislative Conference.

Widom, C.S. (1995). Victims of childhood sexual abuse– Later criminal consequences. National Institute of Justice: Research in Brief. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.

Widom, C.S. and Maxfield, M.G. (2001). An update on the “Cycle of Violence.” National Institute of Justice: Research in Brief. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice.

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