Innocence Lost: Case Studies of Children in the Juvenile Justice System

Article excerpt

Increasing numbers of young children enter the juvenile justice system each year while the system has few supports to work effectively with children, families, and communities to turn children's lives toward healthy pathways. This article examines the complexity of this process in one community of 500 children under the age of 14. We assess many factors that influence the developmental trajectories of young children who are at risk for harm to themselves and others. Young offenders and their families receive myriad services, most of which are disjointed and focused on specific problems or issues, rather than family systems. Findings are discussed and we offer a set of preliminary recommendations.

During the last decade of the 20th century, juvenile violence spread like an epidemic among America's young people. Juvenile arrests for violent crime offenses increased 67% between 1986 and 1995 (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1999). In 1997, 3,593 youth ages 15-19 died by gunshot. Among younger children, guns were involved in 439 deaths of 10-14 year olds, 107 deaths of 5-9 year olds, and 84 deaths of children under 5. This is a total of 4,223 children and youth under age 20 killed by a gun in 1997 (Child Trends, 2000). From 1991 to 1995, female juvenile arrests for violent crime offenses increased 34%, nearly four times the male juvenile increase of 9% (Snyder, 1997). Overall, youth violence increased among both males and females ("Youth Violence," 1991).

Nearly everyday there are reports in the media highlighting the crimes committed by children 10 years old and younger. Recently, in March 2000, the nation's youngest school killer emerged before us. A six-year old boy shot and killed an age-mate girl after a fight they had on the playground the day before. Both children were put at risk by families who were in vulnerable situations. Although juvenile crime is not a new phenomenon (Krisberg & Austin, 1993), given this downward age trend, we need to examine the issue from a developmental perspective.1

Scholars in the social sciences, especially developmental psychology, need to provide data to those in fields such as juvenile justice, education, and social service to create a safety net for children vulnerable and at risk for harm to self and others. What follows is an accounting of a pilot research project that was conducted to assess factors contributing to criminal behavior among young offenders ages 10-13. The research was executed to provide the foundation for an intervention of very young juvenile offenders. The intervention is called Project Turnaround.

In the specific community for this project, there was little question that the juvenile justice system was ill-equipped to address the needs of this young segment of its clientele. Equally apparent was that we had little information on who these children were or their families, and how they had engaged various parts of the justice and social service systems over time. Specifically, the aim of the project was to create alternative paths for the development of these children.

METHOD

We relied on several conceptualizations and perspectives including the ecology of child development (e. g. , Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1989; Erikson, 1963; Mclaughlin, Irby, & Langman, 1994), life course development (e. g. , Baltes & Brim, 1979; Elder, 1974; Elder& Caspi, 1988) resilience and risk (e. g. , Cicchetti & Garmezy, 1993; Luther, 1991; Radke-- Yarrow & Brown, 1993; Rutter, 1992; Spencer, Cole, Dupree, Glymph, & Pierre, 1993), and clinical research that provide underpinnings for understanding the etiology of delinquency and other antisocial behaviors (e. g. , Frick et al. , 1992; Kazdin, 1987; Kazdin, Siegel, & Bass, 1992; Loeber, 1982; Moffit, 1990; Stouthamer-Loeber et al. , 1993).

Most of the extant literature focuses on adolescents and not middle and elementary school-aged children. …