Youth involved in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems—a specific high-needs population—often experience a host of negative outcomes beyond those experienced by their peers involved in only one (or neither) system. These outcomes include higher rates of homelessness, mental health problems, and joblessness. These “dually involved” youth are also more likely to engage in both nonviolent (such as stealing) and violent (such as fighting) delinquent or criminal behaviors in adolescence and young adulthood. Such behaviors, along with childhood experiences of abuse and neglect (or maltreatment), can impact the well-being of these youth and their ability to become self-sufficient adults.
With this in mind, two essential factors can help identify policy and practice solutions: an understanding of the relationship between child maltreatment and delinquent or criminal behavior, and of whether certain protective factors may buffer youth from engaging in these behaviors.
In this report, we examine—in the general population—the relationship between self-reported experiences of child maltreatment and later delinquent or criminal behaviors across age, sex, race, and sexual orientation. By studying this relationship in the general population, our intent is to glean lessons for offering better support to dual-system youth, and to provide insights for the field as it strives to develop and refine preventative approaches to ensure that young people do not initially enter the justice system. To do this, we also explore a variety of protective factors—at the peer, family, school, and neighborhood levels—to test whether these factors decrease delinquent or criminal behaviors and whether those protective effects differ across sex, race and ethnicity, or sexual orientation.
Some protective factors were helpful for all youth—not just those who experienced maltreatment.
- For violent delinquent or criminal behaviors, connections to parents, school, and neighborhood were universally protective and did not vary by maltreatment status.
- Connection to one’s neighborhood was protective against engagement in nonviolent delinquent or criminal behavior for all adolescents, not just for those with a history of maltreatment.
Some protective factors were especially helpful for youth who had experienced maltreatment.
Youth who have a high-quality connection to school and to their parents are less likely to engage in nonviolent delinquent or criminal behaviors, especially among young people who experienced maltreatment.
Protective factors benefit all youth, regardless of individual characteristics.
- The effects of these protective factors on delinquent or criminal behavior did not vary by sex, race and ethnicity, or sexual orientation.
- Our research did, however, indicate that the likelihood of nonviolent behavior was higher among males who had experienced child maltreatment, relative to females.
Adolescents who engage in delinquent or criminal behavior are often labeled “problem children” or “delinquents,” and are often described as beyond redemption. However, our research suggests that many young people involved in the juvenile justice system are struggling with the effects and trauma of earlier maltreatment. The findings also suggest strategies that can potentially support youth who have experienced maltreatment to engage in more pro-social behaviors. Specifically, increasing the quality of these youths’ connections to their families, schools, and communities can reduce their engagement in criminal behavior, and may reduce recidivism after initial problem behaviors are identified. Young men are particularly at risk for subsequent behavioral issues, signaling a need for additional support.