Academic journal article Journal of Juvenile Justice

Childhood Adversity among Court-Involved Youth: Heterogeneous Needs for Prevention and Treatment

Academic journal article Journal of Juvenile Justice

Childhood Adversity among Court-Involved Youth: Heterogeneous Needs for Prevention and Treatment

Article excerpt


There is a robust literature examining the overlap of juvenile delinquency with a range of childhood adversities, such as childhood maltreatment; socioeconomic disadvantage; and family dysfunction, including involvement in the child welfare system. These examinations have supported the notion that the majority of youth involved with the juvenile justice systems bring histories of childhood trauma and adversity (Dierkhising, Ko, & Goldman, 2013; Greenwald, 2014). This has led to a growing recognition of the need to transform juvenile justice systems to appropriately address these histories. However, there is as yet little guidance about the specific and heterogeneous needs of court-involved youth with respect to these backgrounds. The present study seeks to fill that gap by testing for distinct patterns of adverse childhood experiences among subgroups of youth involved with the juvenile justice system. The findings of this study can provide practitioners with novel insights regarding distinct adversity profiles with which court-involved youth enter the system, illumining differing patterns of treatment needs.

Childhood Adversity and Court-Involved Youth

One increasingly common way to assess childhood adversity is with the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) framework. ACEs describe a set of commonly experienced adversities that can be easily assessed in clinical, community, or court settings (Felitti et al., 1998). This work builds on a cumulative adversity model wherein exposure to greater numbers of adversities tends to commensurately increase health risks and maladaptive development, especially because negative experiences tend to be interrelated (Anda, Butchart, Felitti, & Brown, 2010; Duke, Pettingell, McMorris, & Borowsky, 2010). ACEs have been found to be interrelated in both broad-based (Dong et al., 2004) and predominantly young minority community samples (Mersky, Topitzes, & Reynolds, 2013) as well as among court-involved youth (Baglivio & Epps, 2015). Baglivio and Epps (2015) demonstrated that having a single ACE increased the likelihood of having another up to 1,286 times, which bolsters the idea that ACE exposures generally do not occur in isolation. Thus, a cumulative assessment better captures the stress load that children's life contexts impose; such contexts, through which neurobiological as well as psychosocial pathways can lead to problematic development, can cascade across the life course of children (Logan-Greene, Green, Nurius, & Longhi, 2014; Putnam, 2006).

ACEs assessment has commonly included maltreatment (sexual, physical, and emotional victimization and exposure to family violence and neglect) and family dysfunction (household substance abuse, household illness, incarcerated family member, and parental divorce). When measured as a count of how many adversities a person has experienced, the ACE score has been shown to be a powerful predictor of health, behaviors, and even morbidity across a wide variety of populations and contexts (Anda et al., 2006; Larkin, Shields, & Anda, 2012; Nurius, Green, Logan-Greene, & Borja, 2015). Recent extensions of ACEs have incorporated other indicators of adversity, such as out-of-home placement in foster care (Cronholm et al., 2015) and family member illness (Wade, Shea, Rubin, & Wood, 2014), among others.

Lacking from the ACEs framework, however, has been an assessment of poverty-related forms of social disadvantage. The impact of socioeconomic disadvantage on health and a range of behavioral outcomes is well established (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Smith, 2010; Skowyra & Cocozza, 2007) and may also be entangled with other forms of adversity, such as parental incarceration or illness. Recent work has argued for expanded assessment to include adversities such as poverty, out-of-home placement, and community threats (Cronholm et al., 2015; Wade et al., 2014) that might further disadvantage young people through their life course. …

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