The intersection between the child protection and youth justice systems

CFCA Resource Sheet – July 2018

What is the link between child maltreatment and youth offending?

A strong body of evidence demonstrates a link between child maltreatment and youth offending – often termed the maltreatment–offending association (Cashmore, 2011; Hurren, Stewart, & Dennison, 2017; Malvaso, Delfabbro, & Day, 2016). It finds that children and young people with a history of abuse or neglect are at increased risk of engaging in offending behaviours than those without a history of maltreatment. It does not suggest that all maltreated children and young people will engage in offending behaviours – the majority do not – but it does show that they are more likely to come into contact with the youth justice system compared to the general population.

Young people involved in both the child protection system and under youth justice supervision are generally recognised as having a range of complex needs, including developmental trauma, problem behaviours and mental health difficulties among others (Bollinger, Scott-Smith & Mendes, 2017; Malvaso & Delfabbro, 2015; Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, 2017).

The maltreatment–offending association is complex. It can involve a range of factors that influence the risk of subsequent offending behaviour, including variations in the maltreatment experiences and placement in out-of-home care. Furthermore, other individual, social and contextual factors have been found to mediate or moderate risks associated with maltreatment and out-of-home care experiences (Malvaso et al., 2016). These are outlined in more detail below.

Maltreatment experiences

Studies on the maltreatment–offending association have largely focused on how variations in the type, timing and recurrence of maltreatment influence the development of offending behaviours (Malvaso et al., 2016; Malvaso, Delfabbro, & Day, 2017). In their systematic review of longitudinal studies, Malvaso and colleagues (2016) found that all types of maltreatment – physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and neglect – have been found to be associated with offending (see also Malvaso et al., 2017). However, while all types of maltreatment increase this risk, the effect that any particular type has on offending behaviours is inconsistent. For example, some studies show that physical abuse increases the risk of violent crime, while others find it has a stronger association with non-violent crime (Malvaso et al., 2016). These findings suggest that the trauma and stress associated with any experience of maltreatment, regardless of type, might be more important in explaining why young people who have been maltreated are more likely to offend.

The maltreatment–offending association can also be influenced by the timing of maltreatment – for example, abuse or neglect that occurs in early childhood, middle childhood or adolescence – and its recurrence over time. Several studies indicate that children who experience frequent maltreatment that persists over time and peaks in adolescence are at a greater risk of offending (Cashmore, 2011; Hurren et al., 2017; Malvaso et al., 2017). More generally, Malvaso and colleagues (2016) found evidence that the risk of offending increases with age of maltreatment substantiation.

Out-of-home care experiences

The maltreatment–offending association can also be influenced by children and young people's out-of-home care experiences. While placement in out-of-home care can help reduce the risk of offending, in some cases this risk can be exacerbated. Placement in residential care, placement instability and young people transitioning from care to independence are common factors that are associated with an increased risk of offending for maltreated young people (Malvaso & Delfabbro, 2015; Malvaso et al., 2016; Mendes, Baidawi, & Snow, 2014; Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, 2017; Victoria Legal Aid, 2016). For example, residential care may increase the risk of offending due to the co-location of young people with problem behaviours, greater contact with police and the criminalisation of problem behaviours (also known as care-criminalisation) (Cashmore 2011; McFarlane, 2010; Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, 2017).

Other risk factors

Finally, a range of other risk factors can influence the maltreatment–offending association. These can include:

  • individual risk factors (e.g. gender, age, ethnicity, lower levels of education, mental health difficulties, substance misuse, trauma, developmental delays, problem behaviours, homelessness)
  • social risk factors (e.g. parent–child relationships, family structure, family poverty)
  • contextual risk factors (e.g. social disadvantage, neighbourhood poverty, community violence) (AIHW, 2016; Bollinger et al., 2017; Malvaso et al., 2016).

Where present, such risk factors can help to explain why some maltreatment and out-of-home care experiences increase the risk of young people offending. As noted above, the available evidence suggests (Malvaso et al., 2016; Malvaso, Delfabbro, & Day, 2017) that the complex interaction between individual, social and contextual risk factors with maltreatment and out-of-home care experiences can significantly influence the development of offending behaviours for young people and their risk of coming into contact with the criminal justice system.

The maltreatment–offending association highlights the complex range of factors involved for maltreated children and young people that contribute to their increased risk of offending.