How Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Relate to Criminal Behavior
This article is the first in a series about the effects of stressful and traumatic events in a child’s life and its relationship to the likelihood of this child committing serious, violent crimes later in life. These events can include such things as physical abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect, household dysfunction, witnessing domestic violence, substance abuse within the family, mental illness in the family, parental separation or divorce, discrimination, witnessed violence, an unsafe neighborhood, racism, and/or poverty. These ACEs have a high correlation with mortality risk factors, quality of life, and disease, especially early mortality with relation to mental health disorders, cardiovascular disease, pulmonary disease, and liver disease.
The U. S. Attorney General established a National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence and found that every two out of three children experience exposure to violence and that 90% of juvenile offenders in the U. S. have experienced some sort of traumatic childhood event. 30% of the youth who are justice-involved meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder due to this type of trauma. Of course, not every child exposed to ACEs will turn to a life of crime. However, there is a higher probability that they will and therefore it needs to be taken into consideration when attempting to develop methods of reducing the crime rate among juvenile offenders.
Children have no control over their circumstances and of course cannot take themselves out of high-risk environments. They cannot control how their parents act or treat them or where they choose to live. Therefore, they cannot control what they witness with relation to crime or domestic abuse, violence, or substance use. Sadly, children may not feel safe in their environments, neighborhoods, or with their own families. They may feel peer pressure to participate in substance abuse and/or crimes themselves. Of course, since they have never lived or been in secure, safe environments, then they come to believe that these situations are the normal way of life for everyone. They never know when violence will affect their own family or take the life of a friend or family member. “They may join gangs or commit crimes in order to fit in, prevent others from viewing them as weak, or to counteract feelings of powerlessness, thus perpetuating the cycle of violence and increasing their risk of incarceration (Freeze, 2019).” In order to healthily progress mentally and physically, children need to feel safe, stable, and nurtured.
Research into how ACEs affect people was first begun in by Felitti et al. in 1998 within the field of medicine. This study investigated how ACEs effected health and noted more than half of the participants in the study had been victim to at least one ACE. This study also noted that when a child had experienced four or more ACEs, it related to a 4 to 12-fold increased health risk later in life. Once this study was performed, other fields of research developed, including research into how ACEs effect criminal behavior.
Multiple studies have been done over the years (Basto-Pereira, Miranda, Ribeiro, & Maia, 2016; Fang & Corso, 2007; Gilbert, et al., 2009; Hughes, et al., 2017; Kessler, et al., 2010; Thompson, et al., 2015; Felitti, et al., 1998) revealing that the most prevalent ACEs of maltreatment (abuse, neglect) and dysfunctional household environments have shown to be related to multiple negative outcomes in children, adolescents, and young adults, including:
- Internalizing, externalizing, and behavioral problems (Van Duin, et al., 2017)
- Delayed brain development (Berens, Jensen, & Nelson, 2017);
- Long-term health problems (Flaherty, et al., 2013; Thompson, et al., 2015);
- Chronic violent offending (Baglivio, Wolff, Piquero, & Epps, 2015; Basto-Pereira, Miranda, Ribeiro, & Maia, 2016; Fang & Corso, 2007; Fox, Perez , Cass, Baglivio, & Epps, 2015; Garbarino, 2017; Lansford, et al., 2007; Perez, Jennings, & Baglivio, 2018; Reavis, Looman, Franco, & Rojas, 2013; Wolff & Baglivio, 2017);
- Intergenerational transfer of violent behavior (Duke, Pettingell, McMorris, & Borowsky, 2010; Fang & Corso, 2007; Fox, Perez , Cass, Baglivio, & Epps, 2015; Widom & Maxfield, 2001);
- Unemployment, serious problems with jobs, financial issues, absenteeism (Anda, et al., 2004; Currie & Spats Widom, 2010; Liu, et al., 2013; Metzler, Merrick, Klevens, Ports, & Ford, 2017; Zielinski, 2009); and
- A lower quality of life (Abajobir, et al., 2017; Mosley-Johnson, et al., 2019).
In 2013, Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study with four different male offender groups (nonsexual child abusers, domestic violence offenders, sexual offenders, and stalkers) regarding the ACE incidences and demonstrated that ACE are “associated with a range of negative outcomes in adulthood, including physical and mental health disorders and aggressive behavior (Reavis, Looman, Franco, & Rojas, 2013). The offender group reported nearly four times as many ACEs in childhood as the “normal” male group.
Once children or adolescents have experienced ACE they have difficulty with employment, education, having a stable income, and living independently which in turn inhibits them from developing into self-sufficient and well-functioning adults which may increase the likelihood of future criminal behavior and/or psychological problems (Van Duin, et al., 2017).
In a study done by Van Duin, et al (2020), data regarding the relationship between ACEs, adult education/employment, and quality of life was collected on 692 multi-problem young adults ages 18-27 in order to predict recidivism and positive social functioning. Results revealed that both non-violent and violent recidivism and lack of involvement in education/employment was related to an extensive criminal history and a lower quality of life, indicating that past criminal behavior is a strong predictor of future criminality.
Studying this field can help us understand how to address young criminals and learn how to help them to change their lives by working on their potential trauma instead of punishing them for their actions.
Our future articles will go much further in depth regarding the different types of ACEs and how each one effects criminal behavior.
Abajobir, A. A., Kisely, S., Williams, G., Strathearn, L., Clavarino, A., & Najman, J. M. (2017). Does substantiated childhood maltreatment lead to poor quality of life in young adulthood? Evidence from an Australian birth cohort study. Quality of Life Ressearch, 26(7), 1697-1702. doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s11136-017-1517-5
Anda, R. F., Fleisher, V. I., Felitti, V. J., Edwards, V. J., Whitfield, C. L., Dube, S. R., & Williamson, D. F. (2004). Childhood abuse, household dysfunction, and indicators of impaired adult worker performance. The Permanente Journal, 8(1), 30-38. doi:https://doi.org/10.7812/tpp/03-089
Baglivio, M. T., Wolff, K. T., Piquero, A. R., & Epps, N. (2015). The relationship between adverse childhood experiences (ACE) and juvenile offending trajectories in a juvenile offender sample. Journal of Criminal Justice, 43(3), 229-241. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2015.04.012
Basto-Pereira, M., Miranda, A., Ribeiro, S., & Maia, A. (2016). Growing up with adversity: From juvenile justice involvement to criminal persistence and psychosocial problems in young adulthood. Child Abuse and Neglect, 62, 63-75. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2016.10.011
Berens, A. E., Jensen, S. G., & Nelson, C. A. (2017). Biological embedding of childhood adversity: From psychological mechanisms to clinical implications. BMC Medicine, 15(1), 1-12. doi:https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-017-0895-4
Currie, J., & Spats Widom, C. (2010). Long-term consequences of child abuse and neglect on adult economic well-being. Child Maltreatment, 15(2), 111-120. doi:https://doi.org/10.1038/mp.2011.182.doi
Duke, N. N., Pettingell, S., McMorris, B. J., & Borowsky, I. W. (2010). Adolescent violence perpetration: Associations with multiple types of adverse childhood experiences. Pediatrics, 125(4), e778-e786. doi:https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2009-0597
Fang, X., & Corso, P. S. (2007). Child maltreatment, youth violence, and intimate partner violence. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 33(4), 281-290. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2007.06.003
Felitti, V. J., Anda , R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., . . . Marks , J. S. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: The adverse childhood experiences (ACE) study. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 14(4), 245-258. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/S0749-3797(98)00017-8
Flaherty, E. G., Thompson, R., Dubowitz, H., Harvey , E. M., English , D. J., Proctor, L. J., & Runyan, D. K. (2013). Adverse childhood experiences and child health in early adolescence. JAMA Pediatrics, 167(7), 622-629. doi:https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.22
Fox, B. H., Perez , N., Cass, E., Baglivio, M. T., & Epps, N. (2015). Trauma changes everything: Examining the relationship between adverse childhood experiences and serious, violent and chronic juvenile offienders. Child Abuse & Neglect, 46, 163-173. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2015.01.011
Freeze, C. (2019, April 9). Adverse Childhood Experiences and Crime. Retrieved from FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin: https://leb.fbi.gov/articles/featured-articles/adverse-childhood-experiences-and-crime
Garbarino, J. (2017). ACEs in the criminal justice system. Academic Pediatrics, 17(7), S32-S33. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acap.2016.09.003
Gilbert, R., Widom, C. S., Browne, K., Fergusson, D., Webb, E., & Janson, S. (2009). Burden and consequences of child maltreatment in high-income countries. The Lancet, 373(9657), 68-81. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(08)61706-7
Hughes, K., Bellis, M. A., Hardcastle, K. A., Sethi, D., Butchart, A., Mikton, C., . . . Dunne, M. P. (2017). The effect of multiple adverse childhood experiences on health: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet Public Health, 2(8), e356-e366. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/S2468-2667(17)30118-4
Kessler, R. C., McLaughlin, K. A., Green, J. G., Gruber, M. J., Sampson, N. A., Zaslavsky, A. M., . . . Williams, D. R. (2010). Childhood adversities and adult psychopathology in the WHO world mental health surveys. British Journal of Psychiatry, 197(5), 378-385. doi:https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.bp.110.080499
Lansford, J. E., Miller-Johnson, S., Berlin, L. J., Dodge, K. A., Bates, J. E., & Pettit, G. S. (2007). Early physical abuse and later violent delinquency: A prospective longitudinal study. Child Maltreatment, 12(3), 233-245. doi:https://doi.org/10.1177/1077559507301841
Liu, Y., Croft, J. B., Chapman, D. P., Perry, G. S., Greenlund, K. J., Zhao, G., & Edwards, V. J. (2013). Relationship between adverse childhood experiences and unemployment among adults from five US states. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 48(3), 357-369. doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-012-0554-1
Metzler, M., Merrick, M. T., Klevens, J., Ports, K. A., & Ford, D. C. (2017). Adverse childhood experiences and life opportunities: Shifting the narrative. Children and Youth Services Review, 72, 141-149. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2016.10.021
Mosley-Johnson, E., Garacci, E., Wagner, N., Mendez, C., Williams, J. S., & Egede , L. E. (2019). Assessing the relationship between adverse childhood experiences and life satisfaction, psychological well-being and socail well-being: United States longitudinal cohort 1995-2014. Quality of Life Research, 28(4), 907-914. doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s11136-018-2054-6
Perez, N. M., Jennings, W. G., & Baglivio, M. T. (2018). A path to serious, violent, chronic delinquency: The harmful aftermath of adverse childhood experiences. Crime & Delinquency, 64(1), 3-25. doi:https://doi.org/10.1177/0011128716684806
Reavis, J. A., Looman, J., Franco, K. A., & Rojas, B. (2013, Spring). Adverse Childhood Experiences and Adult Criminality: How Long Must We Live before We Possess Our Own Lives? The Permanent Journal, 17(2), 44-48. doi:https://dx.doi.org/10.7812%2FTPP%2F12-072
Thompson, R., Flaherty, E. G., English, D. J., Litrownik, A. J., Dubowitz, H., Kotch, J. B., & Runyan, D. K. (2015). Trajectories of adverse childhood experiences and self-reported health at age 18. Academic Pediatrics, 15(5), 503-509. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acap.2014.09.010
Van Duin, L., Bevaart, F., Paalman, C. H., Juijks, M. J., Zijlmans, J., Marhe, R., . . . Popma, A. (2017). Child Protection Service interference in childhood and the relation with mental health problems and delinquency in young adulthood: A latent class analysis study. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, 11(66), 1-15. doi:https://doi.org/10.1186/s13034-017-0205-0
Van Duin, L., De Vries Robbé, M., Reshmi, M., Floor, B., Josjan, Z., Luijs, M. J., . . . Popma, A. (2020, Nov. 27). Criminal History and Adverse Childhood Experiences in Relation to Recidivism and Social Functioning in Multi-problem Young Adults. Criminal Justice and Behavior. doi:https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0093854820975455
Widom, C. S., & Maxfield, M. G. (2001). An update on the “cycle of violence.”. US Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice.
Wolff, K. T., & Baglivio, M. T. (2017). Adverse childhood experiences, negative emotionality, and pathways to juvenile recidivism. Crime & Delinquency, 63(12), 1495-1521. doi:https://doi.org/10.1177/0011128715627469
Zielinski, D. S. (2009). Child maltreatment and adult socioeconomic well-being. Child Abuse and Neglect, 33(10), 666-678. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2009.09.001
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