The Association Between Abuse and Delinquency

The work of Cathy Widom dominated the literature on abuse and delinquency for a long time. Her prospective comparison of abused children to matched controls was at the forefront of literature in this area in the 1980s and 1990s, and analyses of her data continue to inform research today. In several papers published in 1989, Widom reported that abused and neglected children were more likely to be arrested as juveniles, arrested as adults, and arrested for violent offenses compared to a matched comparison group (Widom, 1989a, 1989b, 1989c). In an update, Widom and Maxfield (2001) report a significant difference in arrests for property crimes, public order crimes, violent crimes and drug crimes for male and female abused subjects compared with the comparison group and a significant difference in drug arrests among the females.

In more recent work, authors have reported increasingly disturbing findings on various realms of antisocial behavior. Lemmon (2006) found that recurring maltreatment is associated with continuity and severity of delinquency. Thompson and Braaten-Antrim (1998) found that maltreatment increased the probability of gang involvement, and this was not contingent upon level of maltreatment. Among female offenders, childhood abuse has been associated with earlier entry into crime and more diverse criminal activity (Lake, 1993). Stouthamer-Loeber et al. found that boys in their high risk sample were almost 4 times as likely to become serious, persistent delinquents if they had been maltreated, even controlling for a host of family interaction variables (Stouthamer-Loeber, Loeber, Wei, Farrington, & Wikstrom, 2002).

Authors have also reported associations between abuse victimization in family of origin and harsh or abusive parenting later in life in numerous data sets (e.g., Bailey, Hill, Oesterle, & Hawkins, 2009; Cunningham, 2003; Pears & Capaldi, 2001; Simons, Whitbeck, Conger, & Chyi-In, 1991). Dixon, Hamilton-Giachritsis, and Browne (2005) compared families with newborn babies where at least one parent had been physically or sexually abused as a child to those with no history of victimization. They found that within 13 months, 6.7% of these families had been referred for maltreating their own children (compared to 0.4% in the comparison group). This is an enormous disparity, and given that actual maltreatment is much higher in prevalence than maltreatment referrals to social service agencies, it suggests a substantial impact and a significant problem. Although Ertem, Leventhal, and Dobbs (2000) downplay the consistency of findings in their review of the evidence on this topic, the estimates of the relative risk of physical abuse perpetration among those who have been physically abused compared to those who have not reported in their paper across 10 studies they reviewed were rather high. Only three of these studies reported a relative risk less than 2.0 (indicating that the likelihood of perpetration was more than 2x as great among those who had been victimized themselves).

Mechanisms in the Association Between Abuse and Violence

The literature has turned to examining the mechanisms through which abuse leads to violence and other mediating factors involved in indirect effects. Haapasalo and Pokela (1999) concluded that there was still no consensus about such mechanisms as of their 1999 review. Savage, Palmer, and Martin (2014) explore theory related to the influence of abuse on antisocial behavior, on particular forms of antisocial behavior and in the etiology of violence and we rely on that review here.

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