Abstract: A Comparison of Attachment Related Impairments Between Youth with Sexually Harmful Behavior and Non-Sexual Offenders in Residential Treatment (Society for Social Work and Research 20th Annual Conference - Grand Challenges for Social Work: Setting a Research Agenda for the Future)

A Comparison of Attachment Related Impairments Between Youth with Sexually Harmful Behavior and Non-Sexual Offenders in Residential Treatment

Friday, January 15, 2016: 10:45 AM
Meeting Room Level-Meeting Room 16 (Renaissance Washington, DC Downtown Hotel)
* noted as presenting author
Jamie Yoder, PhD, Assistant Professor, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
George Leibowitz, PhD, Chair and Associate Professor, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT
Alissa R. Ackerman, PhD, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice, University of Washington, Tacoma, WA
David L. Burton, PhD, Professor Emeritus, Smith College, Northampton, MA
Background and Purpose:  Youth involved in the justice system report high rates of traumatic experiences. Complex trauma is associated with impairments in attachment with parents, caregivers, and peers, and conversely, secure attachments among adolescents are associated with well-being. Additionally, childhood victimization experiences have been linked to a vulnerability to engage in delinquent acts and sexually harmful behavior, and the results of meta-analysis indicate that the rates of polyvictimization are higher among youthful sexual abusers than their counterparts. However, the limited research testing the differences in attachment and family functioning between sexual and non-sexual youthful offenders is equivocal.  The current study investigates differences in attachment styles between these two groups.

Methods: Survey data were collected on male adolescents adjudicated for a sexual offense (N=335) and youth adjudicated of a non-sexual crime (N=150) residing in six residential facilities in a Midwestern state. Standardized instruments were administered to youth assessing traumatic experiences (55% reported sexual victimization), sexual offense characteristics, and attachment related impairments. Independent variables were derived from the mother and father subscales of the Inventory of Peer and Parental Attachment (IPPA; Armsden & Greenberg, 1987), which assesses perceptions of affective and cognitive working models, psychological security, trust, communication, and anger. Elliot and Ageton's (1980) Self-Report Delinquency Scale was utilized to measure non-sexual criminality.

Results: The results of T-tests showed statistically significant differences among youthful sexual and non-sexual offenders on individual subscales of the IPPA including mother trust (t=3.52, p<.001); mother alienation (t=5.67, p<.001); mother communication (t=1.99; p<.05); and mother overall attachment (t=2.67; p<.01), as well as father trust (t=1.99, p<.05); father alienation (t=2.8; p<.01); and father overall attachment (t=1.98, p<.05), with sexual offenders showing greater problems with attachments with parents. The results indicated that there were statistically significantly differences between youthful sexual and non-sexual offenders on these measures.  

 A series of regression models were conducted to assess the relationship between IPPA subscales and sexual and nonsexual offenses characteristics. For example, among sexually abusive youth, alienation from father and trust with mother significantly predicted delinquency (p<.001).

 Conclusions and Implications: Based on these findings and the extant literature, impairments in attachment among sexually abusive youth and delinquent youth are potential risk factors and may contribute to a developmental pathway to offending behavior. Researchers should explore positive family functioning as a protective factor, and account for differences between youth with sexually harmful behavior and their counterparts in the juvenile justice system. Family-based and trauma-informed work that concomitantly addresses attachment among youth is recommended. Effective interventions include family engagement strategies, and psychosexual evaluations should include an assessment of trauma as well as attachment related concerns that, when addressed, could reduce the risk for subsequent violence.