Is Child Maltreatment a Leading Cause of Delinquency?

By Schwartz, Ira M.; Rendon, Jose A. et al. | Child Welfare, September 1994 | Go to article overview

Is Child Maltreatment a Leading Cause of Delinquency?


Schwartz, Ira M., Rendon, Jose A., Hsieh, Chang-Ming, Child Welfare


Although researchers, practitioners, and policymakers have been searching for the causes of delinquency for generations, relatively little progress has been made. Far too little money has been invested by federal and state governments and private foundations in a thoughtful, systematic pursuit. Instead, most resources have been directed toward improving the operation of state and local juvenile justice systems and providing services to juvenile offenders. Policymakers and practitioners tend to periodically embrace simplistic "causes" of and "solutions" to the juvenile crime problem. During the 1960s, the belief was widespread that status offense behavior (running away from home, truancy, etc.), if unchecked, led to serious crime. In the 1970s, many persons in the field cited learning disabilities as a major cause of youth crime. The 1980s saw a resurgence of interest in biological determinants of crime and violence. Eventually, all these notions were largely invalidated or ignored as researchers explored alternative explanations. This article explores the now popular contemporary assumption that delinquency is primarily caused by child abuse and neglect.

Perceptions of the Relationship between Child Maltreatment and Delinquency

In 1993, international attention was drawn to the brutal murder of a two-year-old boy at the hands of a pair of ten-year-olds in Liverpool, England. Newspaper articles speculated that the abuse and neglect the young killers had experienced explained their bizarre crime [Moseley 1993]. The existence of a relationship between child abuse, juvenile delinquency, and adult crime is so well accepted by professionals and lay people that it is considered common knowledge. Television and radio advertisements plead with listeners to report incidents of child abuse "to avoid the cycle of abuse" [Kaufman et al. 1987: 186]. The relationship is often cited in the literature as being supported by research, but the majority of research providing support for the relationship between child maltreatment and delinquency is methodologically flawed. Findings are suspect at best, and in some instances, misleading.

In 1983, the U.S. Senate held hearings on the relationship between child abuse, juvenile delinquency, and adult criminal behavior. A subcommittee chaired by Senator Arlen Spector (R-PA) heard various witnesses testify to the existence of the maltreatment/delinquency relationship, but the Senator's own opening remarks indicate that he was already convinced that a relationship existed between abuse and delinquency and that it was a foregone conclusion that abused children were destined to become delinquents, or worse. "Whether or not these abused and neglected children remain with their parents," the senator said, "they have greater likelihood of becoming juvenile delinquents and adult criminals than other children" [Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice 1984: 1]. James Garbarino, who testified before Senator Spector's subcommittee, stated unequivocally that a direct, causal link between child abuse and subsequent delinquency was well established, citing as evidence the work of Alfaro [1981], as well as his own professional experience in working with incarcerated rapists [Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice 1984].

In 1989, another expert witness testified before the U.S. House of Representatives that victims of child abuse who did not receive "treatment" were doomed to a life of sexual depravity, drug and alcohol abuse, and violent criminal activity [Subcommittee on Human Resources 1989: 20]. More recently, a state senator from New York testified before a subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives that one-third of all young girls and one-fifth of young boys are victims of child sexual abuse. The senator also claimed that 70% to 75% of the most seriously abused children become child abusers, murderers, and rapists [Subcommittee on Select Education 1992].

It seems that federal agencies have accepted this maltreatment/delinquency relationship at face value. …

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