This is a guest article by Dr Catia Malvaso, Professor Andrew Day, Professor Paul Delfabbro, Ms Louisa Hackett, Dr Jesse Cale and Professor Stuart Ross.
The authors have recently been awarded funding from the Australian Institute of Criminology to study how adverse childhood experiences and trauma relates to offending behaviour in the South Australian youth justice system: Adverse childhood experiences and trauma among young people in the Youth Justice system: A South Australian study .
There are few areas of practice in the criminal justice arena quite so contentious as how to respond to young people who commit serious and/or repeated offenses. Recent events across the country, including media reports of youth crime in Werribee and Dandenong have reminded us about some of the concerns that many have about the safety of our communities but sit uncomfortably alongside the report of the Northern Territory Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children which highlighted the difficulties associated with simply incarcerating young offenders.
Responsibility versus vulnerability
One of the most important determinants of our views about what should be considered as appropriate responses to young people who commit crimes is our beliefs about the degree of responsibility that young people have for their actions. Whereas some guidance in relation to matters of criminal responsibility can be found in the law (for example, in Australia there is a conditional legal presumption, doli incapax, that a child under the age of 14 or 15 is incapable of forming a guilty intention), allocating personal responsibility for criminal offences is far from simple when we consider the behaviour of those who are under the age of majority. There are those, for example, who regard young offenders as vulnerable young people who are ‘at risk’ of encountering a wide range of problems across different domains of life and, accordingly should be offered compassion and support. For others, however, there are issues of due process and the need to both punish those who break societal rules, deter others from behaving in similar ways, and to ensure that retribution is sought for victims of crime. Often these different views reflect ideological standpoints that have been formed independently of current research evidence.
How should we best understand issues of vulnerability in young offenders?
A useful starting point, in our view, is to consider evidence from longitudinal studies around Australia that demonstrates that children who have histories of child maltreatment are at a substantially increased risk for subsequent youth justice convictions and detention. Utilising linked administrative data from the child protection and youth justice systems in South Australia, our research into this issue demonstrated that although only 2% of children born between 1982 and 1997 who had contact with the child protection system ended up in detention for crimes they had been convicted of, almost 75% of young people who entered detention between 1995 and 2012 had a history of child protection contact. There is also a growing body of evidence from international research studies demonstrating that maltreatment is likely to co-occur with what are increasingly referred as Adverse Childhood Experiences which represent significant events in a young person’s life that can alter developmental pathways, including witnessing family violence, experiencing parental divorce, separation or death, and living with family members who have substance abuse problems, mental health issues, or who have been incarcerated. It is the cumulative impact of these experiences that is thought to lead to an increased risk of criminal behaviour among young people. Though the mechanisms by which this occurs are not yet well understood, it does raise questions about how the community should respond when the line between victim and offender is potentially blurred.
The rising popularity of “trauma-informed” approaches
Given the evidence that young people who commit crime have experienced high levels of adversity throughout their lives, professionals are now paying more attention to the role that trauma plays in the development of offending behaviour. As evidenced by the recommendations made by the NT Royal Commission, there is an expectation that youth justice systems manage the trauma-related needs of young offenders. As with any developing concept, there has been considerable debate around whether addressing trauma will reduce criminal behaviour. A particular issue in this debate is that not all young people who experience adversity will be ‘traumatised’ and not all individuals who experience trauma symptoms will offend. And yet our recent study which looked at the needs of young male offenders in detention in South Australia showed that 24 of the 28 young people interviewed endorsed at least one of the events listed on a childhood trauma questionnaire, with nearly three out of four rating these experiences as ‘extremely traumatic’ and potentially associated with other proximal risk factors for youth offending, such as poor anger regulation and antisocial thinking. There is also growing international evidence to suggest that unresolved trauma subsequently plays a role in ‘acting out’ behaviour, including aggression and violence, with researchers also identifying poor impulse control, anger regulation issues, and problematic alcohol use as mechanisms underlying the association between maltreatment and youth offending.
The challenge of diversity: one size won’t fit all
In the Australian context, the specific intergenerational impacts of adversity and trauma among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people, who are disproportionately represented in the justice system, must be carefully considered. Another group of particular interest is those who have had contact with the child protection system; especially those who have been placed into out-of-home care. These young people are likely to have experienced early onset, protracted, and repeated traumatic events, such as experiences of maltreatment and domestic violence and are disproportionately more likely than those without care histories to engage in chronic offending into early adulthood. Although young people often enter out-of-home care with difficulties in emotion-regulation, attention, activity level or aggression, all risk factors for criminal behaviour, there is evidence that flawed system processes leads to what has been term “care criminalisation”. This occurs when police are called to deal with behaviour that would normally be dealt with by parents in ordinary family homes. But will training out-of-home care staff in trauma-informed strategies to help manage difficult behaviours be enough to address this issue or is change required at a broader systems level?
Questions left unanswered: where to from here?
It is now time for us to think much more carefully about the causes of crimes perpetrated by children and young adults before we arrive at conclusions about what is the most appropriate response to youth crime. In particular, there are few interventions available in Australia to help young offenders address developmental trauma. Whilst the mental health sector has generally been more willing to acknowledge and work with issues relating to trauma in adolescence, any link between adverse childhood experience and offending behaviour and trauma is still viewed by some as offering young offenders a way to minimise responsibility for their behaviour. And yet, this is not sufficient grounds to avoid developing, implementing, and above all evaluating trauma-informed programs and service responses as a means to prevent both the initiation of criminal behaviour and subsequent pathways into chronic offending.