Exploring the Psychosocial and Behavioral Adjustment Outcomes of Multi-Type Abuse among Homeless Young Adults

By Ferguson, Kristin M. | Social Work Research, December 2009 | Go to article overview
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Exploring the Psychosocial and Behavioral Adjustment Outcomes of Multi-Type Abuse among Homeless Young Adults

Ferguson, Kristin M., Social Work Research

This article explores the psychosocial and behavioral adjustment outcomes associated with verbal, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse among homeless young adults as well as the associations among abuse types. Convenience sampling was used to select 28 homeless young adults (ages 18 to 24) from one drop-in center. Overall, subjects experienced high rates of direct abuse (that is, verbal, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse) and indirect abuse (that is, witnessing family verbal and physical abuse). Chi-square tests revealed that proportions of clinical depression, internalizing and externalizing behaviors, alcohol use, and foster care history were higher among subjects who experienced abuse than among those without reported abuse histories. The findings suggest that homeless young adults experience coexisting types of direct and indirect abuse, which can negatively influence outcomes related to their psychosocial functioning and behavioral adjustment. An inclusive multi-type abuse approach, with both direct and indirect abuse types, is needed to draw accurate conclusions regarding the effects of each specific abuse type on homeless young adults' psychological and behavioral adjustment.

KEY WORDS: homeless young adults; multi-type abuse; physical abuse; sexual abuse; verbal abuse


Homeless young people are highly likely to come from multi-problem and abusive families. Various studies have cited high rates of physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, and parental rejection among this population (Powers, Eckenrode, & Jaklitsch, 1990; Rew, Taylor-Seehafer, & Fitzgerald, 2001; Ryan, Kilmer, Cauce, Watanabe, & Hoyt, 2000; Tyler, Cauce, & Whitbeck, 2004; Whitbeck, Hoyt, & Ackley, 1997a, 1997b). Parental abuse is frequently among the primary reasons homeless youths give for leaving home (Ryan et al., 2000; Sullivan & Knutson, 2000; Thompson, McManus, &Voss, 2006; Tyler et al., 2004; Whitbeck, Hoyt, & Bao, 2000).

Evidence suggests that parental abuse is more prevalent among homeless youths than in the general population (Rew et al., 2001; Ryan et al., 2000). Previous studies reveal that 50% to 83% of homeless youths have experienced physical or sexual abuse (Cauce et al., 2000; Molnar, Shade, Kral, Booth, & Watters, 1998; Ryan et al., 2000; Thrane, Hoyt, Whitbeck, & Yoder, 2006; Warren, Gary, & Moorhead, 1994). Extant studies show that childhood sexual abuse prevalence rates in the general population range from 8% to 32% for female subjects and 1% 16% for male subjects (Finkelhor, 1994). Up to 22% of male subjects and 20% of female subjects report childhood physical abuse (Briere & Elliott, 2003).


Researchers have documented the deleterious effects of abuse on homeless young people's development, psychological adjustment, and future outcomes. Kurtz, Kurtz, and Jarvis (1991) found that homeless youths who were physically and sexually abused experienced a greater number of personal, family, and school problems than those without abuse histories. Having a history of physical and sexual abuse is also considered a risk factor for suicide attempts in homeless youths (Kurtz et al., 1991; Molnar et al., 1998; Powers et al., 1990; Rew et al., 2001) and mental health problems, such as depression, conduct disorder, and trauma symptoms (Ryan et al., 2000; Stiffman, 1989; Thompson, Maccio, Desselle, & Zittel-Palamara, 2007; Whitbeck, Hoyt, & Yoder, 1999).

Extant findings further indicate that early sexual abuse increases the probability of running away and early independence (Sullivan & Knutson, 2000; Thrane et al., 2006; Tyler, Hoyt, & Whitbeck, 2000) and using illicit substances and other deviant behaviors, such as trading sex to survive on the streets (Rew et al., 2001; Simons & Whitbeck, 1991; Tyler et al., 2000; Tyler, Hoyt, Whitbeck, & Cauce, 2001a, 2001b; Tyler et al.

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Exploring the Psychosocial and Behavioral Adjustment Outcomes of Multi-Type Abuse among Homeless Young Adults


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