Explaining Homeless Youths' Criminal Justice Interactions: Childhood Trauma or Surviving the Streets?
Childhood trauma is widely researched as a risk factor for youth offending. Both offending behavior and childhood trauma are common among homeless youth; however, few studies have examined the relationship between trauma and offending among this population. Some argue that rather than a result of traditional risk factors, offending behavior among homeless youth is better explained by their attempts to survive on the streets which often leads to engaging in illegal, high-risk behaviors to make money. Better understanding the interactions among trauma, survival behaviors and offending will inform the development of delinquency prevention programs among homeless youth. The current study investigates whether childhood trauma predicts homeless youths’ involvement in various aspects of the criminal justice system (arrest, juvenile detention, and jail) while controlling for youths’ engagement in survival behaviors.
Data from a sample of 202 homeless youth (age 18-24) in a mid-sized western city were collected from homeless youth service settings, including transitional housing, drop-in centers, and shelters. The study queried whether youth had ever been arrested, in juvenile detention, or in jail (0=no, 1=yes) and utilized the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (Bernstein et al., 1994) to determine youths’ experiences of physical, emotional and sexual abuse experienced before running away from home. Three logistical regression models were used to determine whether childhood trauma predicted youths’ involvement in the criminal justice system (ever arrested, ever in detention, ever in jail), controlling for survival behaviors (e.g., making money through theft, prostitution, dealing drugs, panhandling, and gambling) and demographics (age, race, gender, education, and service location).
Of the sample of 202 youth, 157 (78%) reported ever being arrested, 80 (40%) reported ever going to juvenile detention, and 122 (60%) reported ever going to jail. Higher endorsement of physical abuse experiences predicted youth arrest despite the significant effect of survival behaviors (i.e., dealing drugs) on arrest (x2(df)= 16, p<.05; R2= .26). Greater physical abuse also predicted youth having been in jail with survival behaviors having no significant effect (x2(df)= 16, p<.05; R2= .25). Neither trauma history nor survival behaviors predicted admission to juvenile detention.
Results demonstrate that homeless youth with a history of physical abuse are at significant risk for involvement in the criminal justice system, even after accounting for high-risk survival behaviors, such as dealing drugs. This suggests that in addition to helping youth access resources that will prevent their need to engage in illegal, high-risk survival strategies, delinquency prevention programs should also utilize a trauma-informed approach. Research is needed to investigate potential cognitive and affective mediators of the relationship between childhood trauma and crime to inform intervention development. For example, whether youth with physical abuse histories appraise others’ intentions accurately and regulate emotions effectively should be investigated as potential mechanisms explaining their elevated risk for involvement in the criminal justice system.
Bernstein, D. P., Fink, L., Handelsman, L., & Foote, J. (1994). Initial reliability and validity of a new retrospective measure of child abuse and neglect. American Journal of Psychiatry, 151 (8), 1132-1136.