Effects of Child Abuse on Crime Rates
In 2011, 41 percent of children had been physically abused during the past year, and 55 percent had been physically abused during their lifetime.1) According to Child Protective Services, 681,000 children were abused in 2011.2) The association between child abuse and crime is significant. Neglected children are 4.8 times more likely to be arrested as a juvenile and 3.1 times more likely to be arrested for a violent crime compared to those who did not experience child abuse or neglect.3) In one study, 26 percent of incarcerated delinquents who had committed murder had experienced physical abuse; they also were more likely than those who had not suffered abuse to have directed their violence toward members of their immediate families.4) In another report of 43 death row inmates, 36 had been physically or sexually abused, 37 had been neglected, and 31 had witnessed domestic violence growing up.5)
1. Child Rejection
Jill Leslie Rosenbaum, professor of criminology at California State University, writes: “Research consistently has shown that those youth whose bond to their parents is weak are more likely to be delinquent. [Y]outh who are more attached to their parents have greater direct and indirect controls placed on their behavior.”6)
As a child's emotional attachment to his parents ensures a well- adjusted adult,7) so parental rejection of the child has powerful opposite effects. Ronald Simons, professor of sociology at Iowa State University, summarizes the research findings: “Rejected children tend to distrust and attribute malevolent motives to others, with the result being a defensive, if not aggressive, approach to peer interactions…. Such [rejecting] parents not only fail to model and reinforce prosocial behavior, they actually provide training in aggressive noncompliant behavior.”8)
Rejection by the family, which is the child's first and fundamental “community,” sets the stage for another social tragedy. Rejected children tend gradually to drop out of normal community life. Professor Simons continues: “Parental rejection… increased the probability of a youth's involvement in a deviant peer group, reliance upon an avoidant coping style, and use of substances.”9)
Many other studies in the professional literature replicate these findings.10)
A meta-analysis conducted by Ronald Rohner of the University of Connecticut concludes: “In our half-century of international research, we’ve not found any other class of experience that has as strong and consistent effect upon personality development as does the experience of being rejected, especially by parents in childhood. Children and adults everywhere, regardless of differences in race, culture and gender, tend to respond in exactly the same way when they perceive themselves to be rejected by their care-givers and other attachment figures.” Amongst many other findings, Rohner concluded:
- The pain of having experienced parental rejection during childhood frequently extends into adulthood;
- Those who suffered parental rejection in childhood tend to develop difficulties forming trusting relationships in adulthood;
- Neurological studies suggest that parental rejection activates the same part of the brain as does physical pain.11)
2. Parental Abuse or Neglect
The professional literature is replete with findings of a connection between future delinquency and criminal behavior and the abuse and neglect visited upon children by their parents.12) This abuse can be physical, emotional, or sexual.13) “Overwhelmingly,” observes Patricia Koski, “studies conducted since 1964 have found a positive correlation between parent-child aggression-violence-abuse-physical punishment and aggression on the part of the child.”14) Or, as summarized by Cathy Spatz Widom, professor of Criminal Justice and Psychology at Indiana University, Bloomington, “Violence begets violence.”15)
Studies of the official records of abused children and arrested offenders put this connection in the range of 14 percent to 26 percent.16) But the connection triples to a range of 50 percent to 70 percent once researchers go beyond official reports of investigated cases of child abuse to reports of abuse by the delinquents themselves.17)
Significantly, West Coast Crips and Bloods gang members almost without exception grew up in dangerous family environments.18) Typically, they left home to escape the violence or drifted away because they were abandoned or neglected by their parents.19) Consequently, these young men have developed a defensive world view characterized by a feeling of vulnerability and a need to protect oneself, a belief that no one can be trusted, a need to maintain social distance, a willingness to use violence and intimidation to repel others, an attraction to similarly defensive people, and an expectation that no one will come to their aid.20)) Young women delinquents who run away from home are also frequently victims of sexual abuse.21)
The close connection between child abuse and violent crime is highlighted also in a 1988 study of the 14 juveniles then condemned to death in the United States: 12 had been brutally abused, and 5 had been sodomized by relatives.22)
Children living in intact married families are far less likely to witness or experience such violence.23) Promoting intact families is a necessary step to alleviate the abuse and neglect afflicting America’s children.
3. Impact on Boys versus Girls
Child sexual or physical abuse alone can outweigh many other factors in contributing to violent crime but affects boys and girls differently. Abuse visited upon girls is more likely to result in depression (the inversion of anger)24) or psychiatric hospitalization than in the more outwardly directed hostility of abused males. Sexual assault has also been known to cause posttraumatic stress disorder in girls.25) According to Cathy Spatz Widom, “Early childhood victimization has demonstrable long-term consequences for delinquency, adult criminality, and violent behavior…. The experience of child abuse and neglect has a substantial impact even on individuals with otherwise little likelihood of engaging in officially recorded criminal behavior.”26) Male and female victims of abuse who are aging out of foster care have a greater chance of becoming involved in criminal behavior.27)
H.A. Turner, “The Effect of Lifetime Victimization on the Mental Health of Children and Adolescents,” Social Science & Medicine 62, no. 1, (2006): 13-27.
A.J. Sedlak, J. Mettenburg, M. Basena, I. Petta, K. McPherson, A. Greene, and S. Li, Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS–4): Report to Congress U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families (2010).
This entry draws heavily from The Real Root Causes of Violent Crime: The Breakdown of Marriage, Family, and Community and The Child Abuse Crisis: The Disintegration of Marriage, Family, and the American Community.