CONSIDERING THE CYCLE OF VIOLENCE
Cathy Spatz Widom is a well-known researcher who has been testing the cycle of violence perspective for years by following a cohort of maltreated children into their adult years. Widom (1998) examined the cohort’s official criminal records “during adolescents and young adulthood and found that childhood victimization increases the likelihood of delinquency, adult criminality, and violent criminal behaviour” (p.226). She found that individuals who experienced childhood maltreatment (physical and sexual abuse, and neglect) were almost twice as likely to be arrested as a young offender for a violent crime than children who were not maltreated and were “of the same gender, age, and race who grew up in the same neighbourhood or who was born in the same hospital at the same time” (p.226). Widom (1998) found that maltreated children were not only involved in criminal behaviour earlier than the comparison group, but were convicted more frequently, were more likely to recidivate, and were more likely to become chronic offenders. Overall, Widom (1998) asserted “childhood victimization significantly increases a person’s risk of arrest as follows: by 59% as a juvenile, by 27% as an adult, and by 29% for a violent crime” (p.226).
As discussed before in this blog, it is the concern that childhood maltreatment not only increases the risk of criminal offending and violent behaviour, but also has a profound impact on the mental and behavioural development of youth later in life. Because a relationship was found between both criminal offending and violent behaviour with mental deficits, it is important that we consider not only the impact of childhood maltreatment on the former, but also consider its consequences on the latter. Widom (1998) considered the impact childhood maltreatment has on any mental or cognitive deficits in youth later in life. Consistant with most child abuse literature, she found that childhood maltreatment increased the risk of suicide attempts and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms; it was also more likely to manifest both cognitive and intellectual deficits and also increased the risk of aquiring antisocial personality disorders.
In addition to examining the impact childhood maltreatment had on mental and behavioural development, in a later analysis, Widom, Czaja, and Dutton (2008) considered the impact childhood maltreatment had on the risk of future (re)victimization. In their recent study of the same cohort of individuals, Widom et al. (2008) found “abused and neglected individuals reported a higher number of traumas and victimization experiences than controls and all types of childhood victimization (physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect) were associated with increased risk for lifetime revictimization” (p.788). This information is important when discussing the cycle of violence perspective because it shows a relationship between early childhood maltreatment, later criminal offending and violent behaviour, and an increased risk of revictimization which, in turn, could lead to a further increase in criminal offending and violent behaviour.
Interestingly, Widom et al. (2008) found certain types of childhood maltreatment that increased the risk of later revictimization. According to their study, “compared to the control group, the neglected only group and those who experienced multiple forms of childhood abuse and neglect reported significantly higher numbers of lifetime traumas and victimization experiences” (p.791). It is important to note that these findings do not suggest that children who experience sexual abuse are not at an increased risk of revictimization. As Widom et al. (2008) explained, compared to the control group, those who experienced sexual abuse indicated a higher risk for later lifetime revictimization.
Although the life-course theories tend to focus much of their attention on the impact of early childhood behaviours on later adult behaviour, the main premise behind the life-course theories can serve to be beneficial when combined with the cycle of violence concept. As Moffitt et al. (2002) described, based on the age of onset, early childhood antisocial behaviour and mental deficits have been found to persist later in an individual’s life which is useful for this analysis as it lends support to the notion that effects of early childhood maltreatment can still shape the behaviour of an individual as they pass through their adolescent years. In addition, Thornberry and Krohn (2005) added to this discussion by arguing that those who manifest behavioural problems in early childhood were most likely to presist in serious delinquency over the life-course and display problems with temperment, aggression, impulsivity, and emotionality. In addition to these behavioural characteristics, Thornberry and Krohn (2005) also mentioned to the impact parental deficits can have on children with behavioural problems.
Even though these life-course theories are extremely helpful in understanding life trajectories of delinquent individuals, they tend to lack specific attention to behavioural patterns of youth during their adolescence as a consequence of early childhood experiences. However, these theories do provide us with reason to believe that what happens in early childhood can still affect how ad adult acts. Regardless, it is important to understand and consider why these individuals develop delinquent behaviours in the first place which is now better understood by looking at the cohort study examined extensively by Widom. She demonstrated that early childhood victimization was related to later violent and aggressive behaviour.
Furthermore, early childhood maltreatment can also increase the risk that an individual may experience later revictimization. Taking this cycle of violence perspective and combining it with the general concept of life-course theories, it is possible to examine the impact that early childhood experiences and behaviour have on later adolescent characteristics. Perhaps if a better understanding of the impact early childhood victimization has on youth who are at this stage of development, can result in more appropriate interventions that are specific not only to young offender’s current needs, but also their past histories and experiences. However, in order to make a step towards these specialized interventions, more attention and discussion is needed with regards to understanding childhood maltreament pre-incarceration, reasons for increased risk of (re)victimization and/or violent behaviour, and also how this risk is displayed in the adolescent behaviour of incarcerated serious and violent youth. In doing so, it is hoped we will be able to better identify the specific needs of those who have suffered from childhood maltreatment and also identify if we are able to predict those who are more likely to be aggressive based on their childhood maltreatment experiences.
*References available upon request.