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Children's Voice Article, March 2001

Breaking the Link Between Child Maltreatment and Juvenile Delinquency

By Katherine Wingfield and Rodney Albert

Americans have a firm resolve when it comes to violent crime. Most favor stiff punishment for the offender, while expressing compassion for the victims of serious crimes. Yet the issue becomes complicated when one considers that many victimizers were once victims themselves. Although most children who endure abuse or neglect grow up healthy and law-abiding, the exceptions yield a disturbing and widespread irony: When a community fails to protect a child from harm, it may soon be calling for that young person's head.

The Relationship

To explore the child maltreatment-juvenile delinquency relationship, one can start at either end of the connection. For instance, a range of factors affect juvenile delinquency. Many types of negative influences, or risk factors, have been cited as increasing the risk of involvement in violence, especially in the absence of positive "protective" factors.

In the 1999 Report to Congress, Title V Incentive Grants for Local Delinquency Prevention Programs, the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reports these negative influences include exposure to violence, poor educational opportunities and employment prospects, childhood abuse and neglect, living in a single-parent family, delinquent peer groups, drugs and alcohol, and media violence. Although no evidence exists that certain life experiences will cause a child to engage in criminal or violent behavior, these factors do correlate with higher rates of delinquent behavior. The more risk factors present in a young person's life, the stronger the correlation.

Similarly, research has shown the consequences of child maltreatment extend into adolescence and adulthood. Survivors of child maltreatment experience many difficulties in the course of adolescent development, including delinquency, pregnancy, alcohol and drug abuse, school failure, and emotional and mental health problems.

One important point concerning child maltreatment and juvenile delinquency is that a victim of maltreatment suffers immediate consequences, such as physical injury, malnutrition, or emotional distress, which should be obvious at the time. The link between child maltreatment and delinquency, however, is often more subtle and may take years to surface in the course of one child's life.


Over the past decade, increases in juvenile violence have prompted calls for a tougher response. In 1998, U.S. law enforcement agencies made approximately 2.8 million arrests of people under age 18 who were suspected of violating the law. The 1997 OJJDP Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement counted nearly 126,000 youths under age 21 in both public and private juvenile justice facilities.

A survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated 8,090 young people under 18 were held in adult jails on June 30, 1998, a 29% increase from 1994. The 1999 CWLA Stat Book reports that the U.S. child welfare system - where many children first attract public attention before entering the juvenile justice system - currently has some 530,000 children in its custody, and child welfare agencies are serving one million more with prevention, family support, and aftercare services.

No one knows exactly how many adjudicated children and youth have been involved with the child welfare system, but numerous studies demonstrate intricate interconnections.

The Rochester Youth Development Study found that subjects who had experienced officially substantiated maltreatment before age 12 were at least 25% more likely than nonmaltreated subjects to display a variety of problem behaviors during adolescence, including serious violent delinquency, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, low academic achievement, and mental health problems. Being maltreated increased a child's chances of having a juvenile record by a factor of almost two over children who were not officially abused or neglected.*

In a CWLA study conducted in Sacramento County, California, a review of arrest rates among children ages 9-12 found those referred to child welfare were 67 times more likely to be arrested than other 9- to 12-year-olds. Fully half of all children arrested were from the 1.4% of all children who were known to child welfare.

Many children enter correctional institutions after several child welfare placements. Others transition into child welfare placements when they leave correctional institutions, and still others enter child welfare placements as an alternative to correctional institutions. These two systems that so frequently serve the same young people have many interests in common and much to learn from each other.

Can we better predict which children are most likely to get into serious trouble? Can we better prevent these youngsters from victimizing their communities as well as themselves?

Better Ways

Various studies, both national and local, demonstrate we are better able to identify which specific children are at greater risk to commit additional offenses. For example, in Minnesota, the Hennepin County Attorney's Office undertook an initiative to determine what action was needed to address the growing problem of children under age 10 who were the subject of police reports because of their delinquent acts.

The county attorney's office learned that children at high risk of delinquency can be preidentified in the child welfare system. One or more of the conditions and behaviors documented as predictors of future delinquency were present in most of the children in the study. As expected, their behavior exhibited a complex interplay of multiple factors related to deficits they had developed over their lives. In addition, the families of these children were often part of a chronically neglected population, identified over and over again by multiple public agencies as problem families.

Research is proving that early childhood investments can drastically reduce delinquency. The Syracuse Family Development Research Program reduced delinquency by 91% when parent training, home visits, early childhood education, and other services were provided on a continuing basis to high-risk families.

The study from Sacramento provides communities with more positive and promising options to address serious juvenile and adult crime besides building prisons. The key is to provide intensive services to children and teens before they ever become serious offenders. By identifying children at highest risk of committing serious crimes and helping them and their families with coordinated services, communities can save lives and money, build stronger families and safer neighborhoods, and help young people build productive futures.

What each of these examples demonstrate is that multiple agencies must come together and adopt a shared vision of how to improve the child victim's view of his or her future. An important component of addressing these issues is to commit to prevention in full force in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. As evidenced by the Syracuse program, the effects of investing in expectant mothers and young families can have a dramatic impact on the potential for future delinquency.

One of the most comprehensive reviews and evaluations of tested, proven prevention programs is through the Blueprints for Violence Prevention initiative by the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The Blueprints initiative began with a pool of more than 450 violence prevention programs. Each program was subjected to a rigorous set of criteria to determine if it contained a strong research design, evidence of significant prevention or deterrent effects, replication at multiple sites, and the sustained ability to achieve its desired outcome. Blueprints selected and published the findings of 10 model programs, highlighed on page 13.

Paying for It

States and communities cannot shoulder alone the funding of delinquency prevention programs. Historically, prevention funding at the federal level has been minimal. The Community Prevention Grants (Title V) program through OJJDP is currently the only federal funding available that is solely dedicated to delinquency prevention. Congress authorized the program in 1992 but did not fund it until 1994 - at a level of $13 million. The grants program is currently funded at $95 million, but after congressional earmarks for other programs, the actual amount available to the states is about $45 million.

Since 1994, 49 states, 4 territories, and the District of Columbia have participated in the Community Prevention Grants program. Using a strategic planning process that takes into account risk and protective factors like those mentioned above, local governments identify a broad range of delinquency prevention activities targeted to youth with the greatest need. To date, federal funds have helped train 3,500 community leaders and more than 3,000 community workers to equip them with the tools necessary to effectively complete a risk- and protection-focused strategic plan.

After successfully completing a plan, 885 communities have received grants ranging from $8,000 to more than $1.5 million. In Less Hype, More Help: Reducing Juvenile Crime, What Works - and What Doesn't, Richard Mendel reports the General Accounting Office has determined that
... 90% of communities participating in the process implemented two or more evidence-based delinquency prevention programs, and three-fourths developed multiple approaches to addressing the risk factors identified in their jurisdictions. Participating communities have also been effective in raising state and local resources to support investment in their delinquency prevention plans.
As part of an initiative to use part of the trillion dollar federal budget surplus for services to children, youth and families, CWLA has called on the 107th Congress to increase funding for the Community Prevention Grants program by $155 million. This increased funding would raise the program to $250 million, a level equal to the Justice Department's Juvenile Accountability Incentive Block Grants program.

A Coordinated Effort

Not all children who grow up in violent homes become violent adolescents or adults. Most abused children do not become wrongdoers. Being abused as a child, however, may significantly increase the risk for delinquent or criminal behavior.

Policymakers are becoming increasingly aware of the need for coordination between child welfare and juvenile justice systems in the states. This trend is countered, however, by states that are either instituting reforms in the juvenile justice system without corresponding changes in the child welfare system or moving from a child welfare model to an accountability model in the juvenile justice system. Either direction risks not meeting the child welfare needs of the juvenile justice population.

Given that many institutionalized youth who have committed serious offenses come from a history of severe maltreatment, we need a balanced approach that holds young people accountable for committing these offenses and provides appropriate treatment that takes into account the maltreatment they may have experienced earlier in life. A strictly punitive response may place the young person at risk for further victimization and exacerbate previous emotional and developmental problems that resulted from maltreatment. We must provide comprehensive assessment services to identify problem areas and develop responsive services for juveniles.

*Juvenile Justice Bulletin. (Youth Development Series, NCJ 165257). Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, U.S. Department of Justice.

Katherine Wingfield is Special Assistant to the Executive Director of CWLA. Rodney Albert is Director of CWLA's Juvenile Justice Division.

Blueprints for Violence Prevention

-10 Model Programs-
  1. Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. This mentoring program primarily serves 6- to 18-year-old disadvantaged youths from single-parent households. The goal is to provide a consistent, stable mentoring relationship. A mentor meets with his or her assigned youth at least three times a month for three to five hours.
  2. Bullying Prevention Program. This school-based initiative is designed to reduce victim-bully problems among primary and secondary school children. The program identifies and addresses incidents from teasing and taunting to intimidation and physical violence and attempts to restructure the school environment to reduce opportunities and rewards for bullying behavior.
  3. Functional Family Therapy (FFT) is a family treatment model designed to engage and motivate youth and families to change their communication, interaction, and problem-solving patterns. FFT has been applied successfully to a variety of problem youth with difficulties ranging from conduct disorder to serious criminal offenses such as theft or aggravated assault.
  4. Life Skills Training is a three-year primary prevention program that targets the use of cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana. The initial year includes 15 lessons; booster sessions are provided in years two and three. The program provides general lifeskills and social resistance skills training to junior high and middle school students to increase knowledge and improve attitudes about drug use.
  5. Midwestern Prevention Project. A comprehensive, community-based program designed to prevent the use of cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana among junior high and middle school students. The program introduces five intervention strategies in sequence over a five-year period that involve mass media, school, parents, community organizations, and health policy to combat drug use in the community.
  6. Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care is an effective alternative to residential treatment for adolescents who have problems with chronic delinquency and antisocial behavior. Youth are placed in well-supervised foster families for six to nine months and undergo weekly individualized therapy. Foster families receive weekly group supervision and daily telephone monitoring. Biological parents learn behavior management techniques to ensure gains made in the foster setting are maintained after the youth returns home.
  7. Multisystemic Therapy (MST) targets specific factors in a youth's ecology - family, peers, school, neighborhood, and support network - that contribute to antisocial behavior. MST is a short-term, intensive program by credentialed therapists that has been proven effective for decreasing antisocial behavior of violent and chronic juvenile offenders.
  8. Prenatal and Infancy Home Visitation by Nurses sends nurses into the homes of at-risk pregnant women bearing their first child to ensure the health of the mother and child. Home visits promote children's physical, cognitive, and emotional development and provide general support and parenting instruction from the prenatal period to two years after birth.
  9. Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies is a multiyear, school-based prevention model for elementary school children designed to promote emotional and social competence, including expressing, understanding, and controlling emotions.
  10. Quantum Opportunities is an educational incentives program for disadvantaged teens. It provides educational, developmental, and service activities, combined with a sustained relationship with a peer group and a caring adult during the high school years. By improving basic academic skills, the goal is to help high-risk youth from low-income families and neighborhoods graduate from high school and attend college.


Janine Muller and Sharon Mihalic. (June 1999). Blueprints: A Violence Prevention Initiative (OJJDP Fact Sheet #110). Washington, DC: U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Blueprints for Violence Prevention: Ten Model Programs. (1998). Available online at Boulder: Center for Study and Prevention of Violence, University of Colorado.
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