The Nexus of Trauma & Mental Health in Girls' Pathways Delinquency
Researchers and practitioners have recognized that girls in the justice system experience disproportionately high rates of violence exposure prior to their delinquent or criminal offending. Emerging research on gendered pathways to crime indicates that trauma may intersect with mental health and substance use to contribute to delinquent and criminal offending for girls and women. This study, funded by the National Institute of Justice, uses qualitative and quantitative data to examine poly-victimization and mental health among 100 girls adjudicated delinquent in a southeastern state. This paper specifically explores association of trauma and mental health to delinquent and criminal offending among girls, including risk for substance use, running away, shoplifting or stealing, fighting, and prostitution.
We used Life History Calendar interviews in conjunction with the Juvenile Victimization Questionnaire to measure child abuse and neglect, sexual abuse, dating violence, gang violence, and witnessing violence. Interviews also addressed status offending, criminal offending, and service contacts, among other variables. Interview data was triangulated with caregiver reports of girls’ violence exposure and with archival data from multiple statewide service systems, including child welfare and mental health services.
Girls self-reported violence exposure was associated with their caregivers’ perceptions of that exposure, particularly for violence occurring in the home or in relationships. Descriptive statistics indicate extremely high rates of self-reported violence exposure, with 69% of girls experiencing caregiver violence, 81% experiencing sexual violence, 42% experiencing dating violence, 31% experiencing gang violence, and 90% witnessing violence in their homes or communities. Survival analyses indicate that caregiver violence, sexual violence, and witnessing violence occurred early in girls’ lives. Service system data indicate high levels of diagnosed mental disorders, including conduct disorders and childhood emotional disorders, attention deficit disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and other disorders. Additional qualitative and quantitative analyses will examine association of trauma, mental health, and delinquent or criminal offending.
The study indicates that violence exposure, mental health struggles, and substance abuse are central features in the lives of justice-involved girls. Project findings have implications for social workers in a variety of settings, including juvenile justice, child welfare, mental health, and schools. In particular, these data indicate a need for service system integration and trauma-informed approaches to address the overwhelming circumstances of trauma in girls’ lives. Findings also attest to the need for social work practice, policy, and advocacy to develop responses that do not criminalize children’s efforts to cope with violence and adversity in their homes and communities.