Violence Exposure As a Pathway to Delinquency: A Proposed Cycle of Abuse and Neglect Among Incarcerated Juvenile Sexual Abusers
The purpose of this study is to test a hypothesized pathway from childhood violence exposure to delinquency among juveniles who have committed acts of sexual abuse (JSAs). More than half of all youth are exposed to cumulative and multiple types of violence each year (Finklehor et al. 2009), yet its impact on JSAs is understudied, and researchers have focused more on the impact of childhood sexual victimization (e.g. Burton, Miller & Shill, 2002). However, the majority of victimized youth do not repeat the cycle of victimization (Moffitt, 1993). Although the vast majority of JSAs do not recidivate with sexual crimes, many youth continue on a path of nonsexual criminality for reasons that are not well understood (McCann & Lussier, 2008), suggesting that much remains to be understood in the path to delinquent behavior. Path analysis is used to test the mediating effects of childhood trauma subtypes in the relationship between Violence Exposure and Delinquency in a population of incarcerated JSAs.
Surveys were administered to 332 male adolescent sexual abusers, from 12 to 20 years, placed in residential facilities in a Midwestern state. Subtypes of abuse and neglect were measured with The Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (Bernstein & Fink, 1998). Delinquent behaviors were measured using Elliot, Huizinga, and Ageton’s (1985) Self-Reported Delinquency scale. Violence exposure was based on a 15-item scale. All measures had good psychometric qualities. Variables were entered into path models. In the initial model, all hypothesized pathways were tested. In subsequent models, only pathways that were statistically significant were included. Modification fit indices were used to identify significant associations among subtypes of abuse and neglect. The final model indicated excellent fit statistics.
The final model revealed that the path from violence exposure to delinquency is directly mediated by physical neglect (p ≤ 0.001). Findings further suggested the function of physical neglect within a cycle of trauma: from physical neglect to emotional neglect (ß = 0.509; p ≤ 0.001), to emotional abuse (ß = 0.252; p ≤ 0.001), to physical abuse (ß = 0.813; p ≤ 0.001), and back to physical neglect (ß = 0.372; p ≤ 0.001). Our model hypothesized that the mediating effect of physical neglect between violence exposure and delinquency is driven by a cycle of trauma containing entry points at emotional abuse (ß = 0.170; p ≤ 0.001) and physical abuse (ß = 0.034; p ≤ 0.05).
Our study provides an important step forward in understanding the trajectories of sexually abusive behavior and delinquency, and build on prior JSA research on the relationships between childhood trauma and subsequent criminal justice involvement. For youth exposed to violence, there are multiple entry points that might disrupt this pathway. Implications for social work interventions and further research include the need for early screening for violence exposure, as well as future testing of the cycle of trauma with other populations (such as older incarcerated individuals) and with longitudinal data.