Impact of Child Abuse and Maltreatment on Delinquency, Arrest and Victimization

Police and Childhood Trauma

Learn about Childhood Trauma and Its Effects: Implications for Police, a new paper by Richard G. Dudley, Jr., M.D. from the Harvard Executive Session on Policing and Public Safety

Prominent studies of child abuse and maltreatment point to several unfortunate outcomes for victims as they grow up. Adolescents who were victims of sexual assault are three to five times more likely to suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder, be abused again, be dependent on drugs and alcohol, or commit delinquent acts compared with adolescents who were not victimized, according to a nationally representative sample. In addition, girls who witnessed violence are nearly twice as likely as boys to experience posttraumatic stress disorder later in life. [1]

On this page learn about the impact of childhood abuse on:

Impact of Abuse on Delinquency and Arrest

Being abused or neglected as a child increases the likelihood of arrest as a juvenile by 59 percent, as an adult by 28 percent, and for a violent crime by 30 percent according to one study that looked at more than 1,500 cases over time (the researchers matched 900 cases of substantiated child abuse with more than 650 cases of children who had not been abused). When the researchers looked at the children's race, they found that white children who had been abused and neglected were no more likely to be arrested for a violent crime than those who had not been abused or neglected. By contrast, black children who were abused and neglected showed significantly increased rates of violent arrests compared to black children who were not maltreated. [2]

Findings from another study — the Rochester Youth Development Study — funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, suggest a strong relationship between childhood maltreatment and later delinquency. The Rochester study followed a sample of 1,000 urban youth over time. Researchers found that childhood maltreatment was a risk factor for officially recognized delinquency, violent self-reported delinquency and moderate self-reported delinquency. Overall, child maltreatment appeared to be a risk factor for more serious delinquency, such as assaults, but not lesser forms of delinquency, such as underage drinking. [3]

Substantiated cases of adolescent maltreatment (against children ages 12 to 17) increased the odds of arrest, general and violent offending, and illicit drug use in young adulthood. [4]

Female victims of abuse aging out of foster care are more likely to be involved in criminal behavior. In a longitudinal study of 732 youth (376 female), female youth with histories of abuse or neglect who are aging out of foster care self-reported more criminal behavior in late adolescence and during the early transition to adulthood than their same aged female peers. Meanwhile, male foster youth and their male peers reported more similar rates of criminal behavior. Even more striking, the percentage of female foster youth reporting ever being arrested by age 19 was higher than females and males in the general population — 34 percent of female foster youth reported being arrested compared to 20 percent of males and 3 percent of females in the general population (57 percent of male foster youth reported an arrest). The proportion of arrests to self-reports of criminal behavior is much higher for young adults coming out of foster care than for youth in the general population, especially for young women. [5]

Impact of Abuse on Later Victimization

Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey suggest that nearly half of all adults are physically assaulted as children, and that more than half of all women raped are raped before age 18. Children who are victims of assault or rape are more likely to experience similar victimization as adults. Of the 17.6 percent of women surveyed who reported being the victim of an attempted or completed rape at some point in their lifetime, more than 21 percent were younger than 12 and more than 32 percent were between the ages of 12 and 17 when victimized. In addition, women who reported being raped or physically assaulted before age 18 were more than twice as likely to report being raped or physically assaulted as an adult. Moreover, 40 percent of women and nearly 54 percent of men surveyed said that they had been physically assaulted as a child by an adult caretaker. [6]


[1] Dean G. Kilpatrick, Saunders, Benjamin E., and Smith, Daniel W., Youth Victimization: Prevalence and Implications, Research in Brief, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, April 2003, NCJ 194972.

[2] Cathy S. Widom, Maxfield, Michael G., An Update on the "Cycle of Violence, Research in Brief, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, February 2001, NCJ 184894.

[3] Barbara T. Kelley, Thornberry, Terence P., Smith, Carolyn A., In the Wake of Childhood Maltreatment (pdf, 16 pages), Juvenile Justice Bulleting, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, August 1997, NCJ 165257.

[4] Smith, C.A., T.O. Ireland, and T.P. Thornberry, "Adolescent Maltreatment and Its Impact on Young Adult Antisocial Behavior" Child Abuse & Neglect 29(10) (2005): 1099–1119.

[5] Cusick, G.R., M.E. Courtney, J. Havilcek, and N. Hess, Crime during the Transition to Adulthood: How Youth Fare as They Leave Out-of-Home Care (pdf, 89 pages), Final report to the National Institute of Justice, grant number 2005-IJ-CX-4031, January 2010, NCJ 229666.

[6] Patricia Tjaden and Nancy Thoennes, Extent, Nature, and Consequences of Rape Victimization: Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey, Research Report, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, January 2006, NCJ 210346 and Tjaden, Patricia; Thoennes, Nancy; Full Report of the Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women: Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey, Research Report, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, November 2000, NCJ 183781.

Date Modified: March 14, 2011