Child maltreatment, homelessness and youth offending


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Content type
Short article

October 2017


Anna Stewart, Emily Hurren

This is the third in a series of short articles exploring why children and young people in out-of-home care or who have a history of maltreatment are over-represented in the youth justice system. This article investigates the links between child maltreatment, homelessness and youth offending.

Most young people who have experienced maltreatment, defined as sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional/psychological abuse or neglect, do not go on to offend. However, they are at increased risk of offending, particularly when maltreatment continues into or begins during adolescence.1

While it is not yet fully understood why maltreatment that is experienced in adolescence increases the risk of offending, it appears that homelessness plays a part in this link. Currently, there is little research directly examining the role of homelessness in the link between child maltreatment and youth offending. However, we do have research data on:

  • child maltreatment and youth homelessness, and
  • youth homelessness and offending.

By examining these two relationships, we can get a better understanding of the role homelessness plays in the child maltreatment and offending relationship.

Child maltreatment and youth homelessness

Homeless young people typically come from disadvantaged and dysfunctional families, and maltreatment is often the impetus for a young person to leave home.

Homeless maltreated young people may have:

  • run away from home to avoid the maltreatment (runaways);2
  • been asked to leave home (thrownaways);3 or
  • been placed in out-of-home care.4

Disadvantages experienced by homeless youth are often exacerbated by mental health concerns. Children experiencing multiple types of maltreatment are more likely to develop PTSD and depression.5 Young people who leave home to escape traumatic situations (domestic violence and multiple victimisation) are likely to suffer from trauma-related mental health issues.6 Furthermore, homeless children are at greater risk of victimisation with an estimated 83% of homeless youth experiencing physical and/or sexual assault after leaving home,7 increasing their risk of further mental health issues.

Youth homelessness and offending

Homeless young people are at a higher risk of becoming involved in the criminal justice system than their housed counterparts.8

Young homeless people are often unable to support themselves, ineligible for benefits, and unlikely to find employment. Consequently, they may engage in survival behaviours—begging, theft, drug dealing and prostitution—to earn income for food and shelter.9 Not only are some of these behaviours illegal, they are also more visible to police due to the lack of privacy experienced by homeless people.10

Trauma adds to the risk of offending behaviour, contributing to the link between child maltreatment, homelessness and offending.  Experiences of trauma—both prior to leaving home and a result of being homeless—lead to poor self-regulation and coping skills (exacerbated by substance abuse), placing the young person at high risk for serious illegal behaviour.11

Interventions to support homeless young people

Homeless young people have often experienced complex and multiple traumas, and are particularly vulnerable to continued victimisation and offending. To prevent further involvement with the criminal justice system (both as a victim and offender), it is vital to support maltreated youth for whom living at home is not an option. 

Interventions should address both the physical and psychosocial needs of homeless young people, such as appropriate safe housing and complex trauma interventions. These young people require support through the processes of transitioning to adulthood, staying in school, finding employment and forming healthy relationships.

Intervention programs should be trauma-informed and holistic. Evidence-based intervention strategies, such as Functional Family Therapy, Multi systemic Therapy and Multidimensional Therapeutic Foster Care,12 all provide appropriate frameworks for engaging and supporting young people at risk of homelessness.


  1. Hurren, E., Stewart, A., & Dennison, S. (2017). Transitions and turning points revisited: A replication to explore child maltreatment and youth offending links within and across Australian cohorts. Child Abuse & Neglect, 65, 24-36;
    Smith, C. A., Ireland, T. O., & Thornberry, T. P. (2005). Adolescent maltreatment and its impact on young adult antisocial behavior. Child Abuse & Neglect, 29(10), 1099-1119;
    Stewart, A., Dennison, S., & Waterson, E. (2002). Pathways from child maltreatment to juvenile offending. In C. A. I. o. Criminology (Series Ed.) Vol. No 241. Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice;
    Stewart, A., Livingston, M., & Dennison, S. (2008). Transitions and turning points: Examining the links between child maltreatment and juvenile offending. Child Abuse & Neglect, 32(1), 51-66;
  2. Thornberry, T. P., Ireland, T. O., & Smith, C. A. (2001). The importance of timing: The varying impact of childhood and adolescent maltreatment on multiple problem outcomes. Development and Psychopathology, 13(4), 957-979.
  3. Brakenhoff, B., Jang, B., Slesnick, N., & Snyder, A. (2015). Longitudinal predictors of homelessness: findings from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth-97. Journal of Youth Studies, 18(8), 1015-1034.
  4. Thompson, S. J., Bender, K., & Kim, J. (2011). Family Factors as Predictors of Depression Among Runaway Youth: Do Males and Females Differ? Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 28(1), 35-48. 
  5. Mar, M. Y., Linden, I. A., Torchalla, I., Li, K., & Krausz, M. (2014). Are Childhood Abuse and Neglect Related to Age of First Homelessness Episode Among Currently Homeless Adults? Violence and Victims, 29(6), 999-1013. 
  6. Bender, K., Ferguson, K., Thompson, S., & Langenderfer, L. (2014). Mental health correlates of victimization classes among homeless youth. Child Abuse & Neglect, 38(10), 1628-1635.
  7. Yoder, J. R., Bender, K., Thompson, S. J., Ferguson, K. M., & Haffejee, B. (2014). Explaining Homeless Youths’ Criminal Justice Interactions: Childhood Trauma or Surviving Life on the Streets? Community Mental Health Journal, 50(2), 135-144. 
  8. Stewart, E. A., Elifson, K. W., & Sterk, C. E. (2004). Integrating the general theory of crime into an explanation of violent victimization among female offenders. Justice Quarterly, 21(1), 159-181. 
  9. Edalati, H., & Nicholls, T. L. (2017). Childhood Maltreatment and the Risk for Criminal Justice Involvement and Victimization Among Homeless Individuals: A Systematic Review. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 1-16.
  10. Ferguson, K. M., Bender, K., Thompson, S., Xie, B., & Pollio, D. (2011). Correlates of Street‐Survival Behaviors in Homeless Young Adults in Four U.S. Cities. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 81(3), 401-409.
  11. Heerde, J. A., & Hemphill, S. A. (2013). Stealing and Being Stolen From. Youth & Society, 48(2), 265-300.
  12. Thompson, S. J., McManus, H., & Voss, T. (2006). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Substance Abuse Among Youth Who Are Homeless: Treatment Issues and Implications. Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention, 6(3), 206-217.
  13. Ogilvie, J., & Allard, T. (2011). Chapter 9: Rehabilitative Programs and Interventions,. In A. Stewart, T. Allard, & S. Dennison (Eds.), Evidence Based Policy and Practice in Youth Justice. Sydney: Federation Press.

Feature image by Jesús Rodríguez,  CC0 1.0.