Child offenders' lives dogged by trauma, mental illness and abuse

Juvenile offenders are likely to have experienced very high rates of parental loss, emotional abuse and substance use within the family – with high rates of family mental illness, physical abuse and domestic violence, a new study has found
Child offenders' lives dogged by trauma, mental illness and abuse

The study found very high rates of parental loss, emotional abuse and substance use within the family – with high rates of family mental illness, physical abuse and domestic violence.

Almost all juvenile offenders in diversion programmes examined have suffered trauma in their lives and almost two-thirds have experienced multiple traumas, according to new research.

The study found very high rates of parental loss, emotional abuse and substance use within the family – with high rates of family mental illness, physical abuse and domestic violence.

Sexual abuse was more than five times higher among girls than boys examined, with girls also suffering more physical abuse and emotional abuse.

The study was commissioned by An Garda Síochána and international body YouthRise and conducted by Applied Psychology at UCC and Quality Matters.

Adverse childhood experiences

Thought to be the first study of its type in the Garda Youth Diversion Programme, it examined adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) among participants in Cork and Dublin.

It found:

  • 96% of the 125 children examined had experienced at least one ACE 
  • 63% had suffered four or more traumatic experiences 
  • 36% had endured six or more ACEs 

Three out of four of the juveniles had lost their parent and two thirds had suffered emotional abuse and came from a home where there was substance abuse.

Sexual abuse was more than five times higher among girls than boys examined, with girls also suffering more physical abuse and emotional abuse.
Sexual abuse was more than five times higher among girls than boys examined, with girls also suffering more physical abuse and emotional abuse.

Mental illness in the family was a factor for more than half of the children and the same number suffered emotional neglect.

Around four out of 10 had a family member incarcerated and almost the same number experienced physical abuse, and a third physical neglect.

One fifth experienced domestic abuse against their mother and one in 12 suffered sexual abuse – but the rate was more than five times higher for girls (28%) than boys (5%).

Number of traumas

The research suggests a link between the number of traumas and whether or not they came from a disadvantaged area, had been in care or not, if they were in employment or education, and level of offending. 

“Young people who had four or more ACEs were more likely to have had these challenging life experiences,” it said. “This relationship is even more marked for young people who had six or more ACEs."

It said: “The experience of ACEs, particularly when there are four or more, have been found to have a strong relationship with negative life outcomes, such as chronic illness, homelessness, domestic violence, depression, suicide attempts and the adoption of health risk behaviours such as smoking, substance use."

The Children's Court: A new study said a “trauma-informed” approach would be particularly beneficial for projects aimed at diverting young offenders away from the criminal justice system – as it would enhance their resilience and wellbeing and potentially reduce aggression and reoffending.
The Children's Court: A new study said a “trauma-informed” approach would be particularly beneficial for projects aimed at diverting young offenders away from the criminal justice system – as it would enhance their resilience and wellbeing and potentially reduce aggression and reoffending.

It added: “The ACE profile of young people in this study mirrors more closely that of populations accessing homeless, probation and substance use support services than the general population. This finding highlights high rates of trauma in this population, and the importance of effective intervention, engagement and diversion strategies.” 

The report recommended Garda bosses set up a pilot "trauma-informed" project for juveniles, involving staff training and supports.

The study said a “trauma-informed” approach would be particularly beneficial for projects aimed at diverting young offenders away from the criminal justice system – as it would enhance their resilience and wellbeing and potentially reduce aggression and reoffending.

The research found juvenile liaison officers (JLOs) did engage in some practices that would be considered “trauma-informed”. Both JLOs and regular gardaí told researchers that trauma training would be of benefit.

Co-author Dr Sharon Lambert, Applied Psychology, UCC said: 

This research has indicated high levels of trauma histories in many children and young people involved with the criminal justice system. More than eight in 10 of the young people were from disadvantaged communities. 

"Another significant finding was the large numbers of children who had experienced the loss of a parent due to death or separation at 73% as opposed to approximately 23% within the general population. Young people who are grieving a loss can struggle to process this and can be seen as ‘bad’ instead of ‘sad’. 

"This perception of emotional distress as challenging behaviour frequently results in exclusion from a range of protective factors such as education and there is a need for trauma aware services.”

Chief Superintendent Colette Quinn, Director of the Garda Youth Diversion Programme said: “The report highlights that young people attending Garda Youth Diversion Projects (GYDPs) in Ireland have a significantly higher Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) profile than that of the general population.

Garda Juvenile Liaison Officers (JLOs) and Youth Workers are involved in this type of work in their routine interactions with young people.

"The study very much reflects what is intuitively known within youth justice services, and has captured this knowledge, it has also provided empirical evidence that Juvenile Liaison Officers’ work is young person centred."

She added: "The findings provide a good argument for the need to focus on trauma within An Garda Síochána and there will be further developments in this regard”.

Aoife Dermody, researcher at Quality Matters said: "This is the first time we have Irish data to confirm what Juvenile Liaison Officers and youth workers know - that young people engaged with the Gardaí have high levels of past trauma such as abuse, neglect and loss.

"The research compels Gardaí working in marginalised communities to implement recommended practices from Trauma Informed Models, which draw from psychology and neuroscience, in order to reduce re-offending and create safer communities.'

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