The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), High School Dropout and Crime: Extending the Study of ACE Effects Beyond Health Outcomes and With Mediation Analyses

Saturday, January 18, 2014: 11:30 AM
HBG Convention Center, Room 008B River Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
James Dimitri Topitzes, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee, WI
Background/Purpose: According to seminal research published over the past 15 years, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) significantly increase the risk for adult health-related impairments. While little is known about the effects of ACEs outside the domain of health, it is plausible to hypothesize that ACEs negatively predict other critical life course outcomes. Consequently, this study investigated associations between ACEs and several key indicators of human capital and antisocial behavior while also testing mediation effects. Two research questions guided analyses:
  1. Do ACEs increase the risk for high school dropout and adult crime?
  2. Does high school dropout mediate the association between ACEs and crime?

Methods: Data originated from the Chicago Longitudinal Study, a panel investigation of disadvantaged minority participants about whom the CLS collected administrative, self-report, and parent report information from ages 0 through 26 (N=1,142). Of the eight ACE study items, seven emerged from young adult responses to the Life Events Checklist and indicated exposure to the following childhood experiences: divorce of parents, prolonged absent of parent, parent substance abuse, frequent family conflict, family financial problems, death of a close friend or relative, and victim or witness of violent crime. The CLS derived the eighth ACE measure – household record of childhood abuse or neglect – from child protective service records. School records informed the study measure of high school dropout, while court records defined three indicators of adult crime (ages 18-26) – any arrest, any guilty arrest, and any felony arrest. Covariates such as low birth weight and mother’s educational attainment stemmed from administrative and parent report data.

For question one, multivariate logistic regressions were used to test: 1) the association between individual ACE items and study outcomes, 2) the association between a cumulative ACE index and study outcomes, and 3) the sample rate of each study outcome relative to number of ACEs. For question two, simple hierarchical regression was employed to analyze the mediating effects of high school dropout on the ACE-crime connection.

Results: Nearly all individual ACEs forged significant associations with at least one study outcome, while five surfaced as robust predictors of one or more outcomes. The ACE index significantly predicted all study outcomes (P < .01), and the relationship between the number of ACEs and the prevalence of school failure or crime appeared to be graded such that successive ACE counts corresponded to higher rates of dropout or crime. Additionally, high school dropout fully or partially mediated the linkage between the ACE index and crime, even when controlling for juvenile delinquency.

Conclusions: Results reveal that ACEs, particularly in cumulative form, can undermine life course trajectories by contributing to school dropout and crime, and suggest that ACEs can extend their corrosive influence beyond health. Developmental criminologists argue that the origins of adult antisocial behavior can be traced to early environments. Our findings support this assertion and indicate that aversive inputs within the early years of life can cascade into school failure, which in turn can result in adult crime among minority adults from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.