Investigating the complex links between maltreatment and youth offending


You are in an archived section of the AIFS website 


Content type
Short article

August 2017


Catia Malvaso

This is the first 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 focuses on the complex links between child maltreatment and youth offending.

A large and convincing body of evidence1 attests to the role that childhood maltreatment plays in the development of offending behaviour in adolescence and beyond.2 Despite this, the nature of the relationship remains unclear. In particular, it is unclear whether offending behaviour arises directly as a result of maltreatment itself, other risk factors, or from an interaction between both maltreatment and other co-existing risk factors.

A complex relationship

Longitudinal studies that follow groups of individuals over time generally show that the association between maltreatment and offending is not deterministic. That is, the vast majority of young people who have experienced maltreatment do not go on to commit criminal offences. Instead, these studies demonstrate that the pathway to offending is influenced by a complex interplay of individual, social and contextual risk factors other than, and often in combination with, maltreatment experiences.3, 4

Type, timing and recurrence of maltreatment

Studies into the links between maltreatment and offending have generally relied heavily on administrative data collected by child protection and youth justice agencies. This information provides useful insights into how variations in maltreatment experiences influence outcomes. Researchers have mostly been interested in disentangling the effects of different maltreatment factors, including, but not limited to, the type, timing and recurrence of maltreatment.

Although the type of maltreatment, specifically neglect, has been identified as an important risk factor for the development of offending behaviour, it is clear that timing is also influential. Consistent with international findings,5 two Australian studies provide clear evidence that maltreatment that either starts or continues beyond age 12 into adolescence is more consequential in the development of offending behaviour compared to maltreatment that is limited to the childhood years prior to age 12.6, 7

Behavioural issues and social circumstances

Other studies that have used a combination of administrative and survey data have demonstrated the importance of other mediating factors in explaining the maltreatment-offending association. For example, studies have shown that behavioural issues, poorer educational attainment, mental health problems and substance misuse can all play a role in exacerbating the link between maltreatment and offending.8, 9

Other studies have found that social circumstances are also influential. Parental characteristics such as low income, mental illness and incarceration have been shown to increase the risk of offending among victims of maltreatment.10, 11 Furthermore, although only a few studies have considered broader contextual factors, such as neighbourhood poverty or residential stability,12, 13 there is evidence that these factors also contribute to explaining the association between maltreatment and offending.  

Considerations for future research

Surprisingly, there are only a few large-scale studies in Australia that have explored the association between maltreatment and offending. Without such studies, it is difficult to know how to improve policies and practices that aim to prevent youth offending. To some degree, this has been due to the limited sample sizes available in existing studies that restrict researchers’ abilities to meaningfully compare outcomes among males and females, and among young people from different ethnic or cultural groups. This is especially important in the Australian context in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people are consistently over-represented in both the child protection and youth justice systems.

It is hoped, therefore, that as data linkage techniques improve, we will continue to see the emergence of larger sample studies. These would allow for more detailed examinations of how and for whom abusive or neglectful experiences lead to offending behaviour. This can be achieved by expanding linkages beyond child protection and youth justice records to include information from the health, education and welfare systems.

This information will help professionals translate research findings into practical solutions and enhance collaboration between the child protection and youth justice systems, and between other relevant departments responsible for promoting the health and wellbeing of Australia’s children and young people.

For more information about this research, contact Catia Malvaso: catia.malvaso(at)

Further reading and resources


  1. Malvaso, C. G., Delfabbro, P., & Day, A. (2016). Risk factors that influence the maltreatment-offending association: A systematic review of prospective and longitudinal studies. Aggression & Violent Behavior, 1-15. doi: 10.1016/j.avb.2016.06.006
  2. Malvaso, C. G., Delfabbro, P., & Day, A. (2017). The child protection and juvenile justice nexus in Australia: A longitudinal examination of the relationship between maltreatment and offending. Child Abuse & Neglect, 64, 32-46. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2016.11.028
  3. Mersky, J. P., & Reynolds, A. J. (2007). Child maltreatment and violent delinquency: Disentangling main effects and subgroup effects. Child Maltreatment, 12(3), 246-258. doi: 10.1177/1077559507301842
  4. Schuck, A. M., & Widom, C. S. (2005). Understanding the role of neighborhood context in the long-term criminal consequences of child maltreatment. American Journal of Community Psychology, 36(3-4), 207-222. doi: 10.1007/s10464-005-8615-1
  5. Thornberry, T. P., Henry, K. L., Ireland, T. O., & Smith, C. A. (2010). The causal impact of childhood-limited maltreatment and adolescent maltreatment on early adult adjustment. Journal of Adolescent Health, 46(4), 359-365. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2009.09.011
  6. Malvaso, C. G., Delfabbro, P., & Day, A. (2017).
  7. 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. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2007.04.011
  8. Goodkind, S., Shook, J. J., Kim, K. H., Pohlig, R. T., & Herring, D. J. (2012). From child welfare to juvenile justice: Race, gender, and system experiences. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice. doi: 10.1177/1541204012463409
  9. Topitzes, J., Mersky, J. P., & Reynolds, A. J. (2011). Child maltreatment and offending behavior: gender-specific effects and pathways. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 38(5), 492-510. doi: 10.1177/0093854811398578
  10. Verrecchia, P. J., Fetzer, M. D., Lemmon, J. H., & Austin, T. L. (2010). An examination of direct and indirect effects of maltreatment dimensions and other ecological risks on persistent youth offending. Criminal Justice Review, 35(2), 220-243. doi: 10.1177/0734016809360327
  11. Widom, C. S., Schuck, A. M., & White, H. R. (2006). An examination of pathways from childhood victimization to violence: The role of early aggression and problematic alcohol use. Violence & Victims, 21(6), 675-690.
  12. Bright, C. L., & Jonson-Reid, M. (2008). Onset of juvenile court involvement: Exploring gender-specific associations with maltreatment and poverty. Child Youth Services Review, 30(8), 914-927. doi: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2007.11.015
  13. Nikulina, V., Widom, C. S., & Czaja, S. (2011). The role of childhood neglect and childhood poverty in predicting mental health, academic achievement and crime in adulthood. American Journal of Community Psychology, 48(3-4), 309-321.