Interrupting the cycle of violence : identifying gender-specific pathways from childhood maltreatment to juvenile delinquency in a national sample of youth involved in the child welfare system
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Youth who experience maltreatment are at increased risk for delinquent behavior. This pattern in which youth victims become offenders has been termed the Cycle of Violence. This study identifies intervening factors that explain how maltreatment leads to delinquency in order to highlight methods for interrupting the Cycle of Violence. A first primary objective of this study is to determine whether more severe maltreatment leads to more severe delinquency among youth involved in the child welfare system. Next, the study investigates what factors explain the relationship between maltreatment and delinquency, examining mental health, substance use, and school disengagement as potential intervening factors. Finally, this research tests whether pathways from maltreatment to delinquency differ by gender. The study sample is drawn from three waves of the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being (NSCAW) [1999-2003]. This national sample included 1179 youth (age 11-15 at baseline) who were involved in the child welfare system. Data were analyzed using Latent Growth Modeling (LGM). Findings indicate youth who were more severely maltreated had higher levels of initial delinquency and more stable delinquency over time. Sexually abused youth were no more or less likely to report delinquent behavior than youth who experienced other forms of maltreatment, and gender did not affect delinquency patterns. Among the intervening factors, mental health and school disengagement significantly mediated the maltreatment-delinquency relationship. These findings indicate that youth who were more severely maltreated reported more mental health problems (depression and PTSD) and more school disengagement. These problems resulted in youths’ increased risk for delinquent behavior. Substance use did not mediate the maltreatment-delinquency relationship. Substance use was, however, a strong predictor of delinquency among all youth involved in the child welfare system regardless of the level of maltreatment experienced. It is noteworthy that gender did not moderate the relationship between maltreatment and delinquency or any of the mediating effects. Results indicate a need for improved screening and intervention in child welfare to prevent youths’ delinquent behavior and strongly indicate the need for improved cross-system collaboration to bridge services systems.