Ask the GAL: Abused children far more likely to commit a crime

September 12, 2012 

Q: Is a child who has suffered abuse, abandonment or neglect more likely to become a juvenile delinquent?

A: A juvenile delinquent is a child who has been charged with committing a violation of the law and is younger than 18. Even a child in dependency can be caught committing a crime. Often these children, already in the state's care, go to juvenile detention facilities and must appear in court for their crimes.

Lynne Higgins, Guardian ad Litem supervisor, recently reviewed several scientific studies done to try answering whether an abused child is more likely to become a juvenile delinquent. She found that social workers have speculated that child abuse causes negative emotions and emotional strains that can later trigger aggressive or delinquent behavior.

These speculations have given rise to numerous studies around the world, especially in England, Australia and the United States, all of which have similar social systems. These studies have shown conclusively that being abused as a child can be a contributing factor to later involvement with the juvenile delinquency system. And there is a relationship between the severity of the abuse and the likelihood that the child will later become involved in delinquent behavior.

In one study of youth in juvenile justice detention, 81 percent of young women and 57 percent of young men had been abused or neglected. While the majority of abused and neglected children do not engage in delinquency, a significant number of children who do become juvenile delinquents have experienced child abuse.

Furthermore, being subjected to abuse during the adolescent years puts youth at an even greater risk of becoming involved in delinquent behavior.

Because children in dependency are at a greater risk for involvement with the juvenile delinquency system, we need to ask ourselves if anything can be done to help deter abused children from becoming involved in juvenile delinquency. In many cases, the answer is "Yes."

Studies have shown there are a number of "protective factors" that can help abused children not only avoid juvenile delinquency, but to grow and mature into happy adults.

One of the most important protective factors is having role models or family members who exemplify positive

values and offer support to the child. A caring family member or friend can serve as a positive role model for an abused child. But when no family is available, someone from the community must step up.

A case manager or a mentor from the community can be an important influence or role model for the child. Often it is the guardian ad litem who is a voice for the child in court who also serves as a role model, acting as one of the "protective factors" that help lead an abused child away from the path of juvenile delinquency.

Through visits to the child, visits to the child's school or pre-school, attendance at out-of-school activities, and advocating in court, guardians are able to demonstrate commitment, reliability and caring to their children. So, while child abuse has been shown to possibly lead to later involvement in the juvenile delinquency system, there can also be protective factors that help reduce the harmful effects of this abuse.

Pam Hindman, director of the Guardian ad Litem program for the 12th Judicial Circuit, writes this weekly column for the Herald. Email Pam at askthegal@12gal.org, or write to her at Guardian ad Litem Program, 1051 Manatee Ave. W., Hensley Wing, Suite 330, Bradenton, MO 34205.

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