Adverse Childhood Experiences and its Relationship with Crime and Victimization

Updated: Oct 13, 2020

Author: Chafica Khodr Agha, Esq., Staff Attorney & Program Associate, NCVC

Violent crime has decreased significantly since the 1990’s, yet adolescents continue to participate in and fall victim to violent crime at increased rates. In 2016, adolescents and children carried out nearly 10% of violent crimes reported to law enforcement agencies, with two-thirds conducted by minors between the ages of 15 and 18.

These experiences are often highly traumatic for children and can have lifelong effects that last all throughout adulthood. In a study conducted from 1995 to 1997, the Center for Disease Control (‘CDC’) and Kaiser Permanente led the largest investigation in history on childhood adverse experiences (ACE’s) including: childhood abuse, neglect, poverty, and household challenges. The study found a substantial link between ACE's and negative health issues that develop with age.

Furthermore, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, ACE’s have been linked to: (1) risky health behaviors such as teen pregnancy, illegal drugs, and high-risk sexual behavior such as unprotected sex; (2) chronic health conditions including various auto-immune diseases, inflammation, and allergies; (3) anxiety or depression affecting daily life, inability to maintain employment, lack of coping skills, and difficulty forming or maintaining relationships; and (5) earlier deaths resulting from either suicide, victimization, death, violence, or disease.

What are the risk factors of ACEs?

The biggest study on ACEs, performed by the National Survey of Children’s Health, established nine factors that help to determine the severity of an individual’s childhood adversity experiences. They are below:

· Lived with a parent or guardian who became divorced or separated

· Lived with a parent or guardian who died

· Lived with a parent or guardian who served time in jail or prison

· Lived with anyone who was mentally ill or suicidal, or severely depressed for more than a couple of weeks

· Lived with anyone who had a problem with alcohol or drugs

· Witnessed a parent, guardian, or other adult in the household behaving violently toward another (e.g., slapping, hitting, kicking, punching, or beating)

· Been the victim of violence or witnessed any violence in their neighborhood

· Experienced economic hardship somewhat often or very often (i.e., the family found it hard to cover the costs of food and housing)

· Been treated or judged unfairly because of their race or ethnicity

Food for Thought: For each of the aforementioned factors, provide a single point to each that apply to you or someone that you know, including a victim or suspect you may have engaged with previously. For example, if you or the person you have in mind experienced none of the above, the ACE’s score would be “0”; however, if you answered yes to three of the factors above, the ACEs score would be “3”.

Who is affected by ACE’s?

Though ACE’s are prevalent across all race and ethnic groups, data from the CDC-Kaiser Permanente study on childhood adversity indicates that ACE's scores are disproportionately lower for Caucasian children and lowest for Asian children (particularly Japanese, Chinese, and Taiwanese groups).

Conversely, black children experience ACE’s at significantly higher rates than all ethnic groups, with six out of every ten black children having at least one adverse childhood experience. Research shows that people who are abused as children are more likely to experience victimization as an adult. Likewise, people who experience domestic violence during childhood are more likely to be abused by a partner or perpetrate abuse against a partner in adulthood.

Children with higher ACEs scores are also significantly more likely to fall victim to violent crime, particularly sexual assault. Although all ACEs increase the risk of adult sexual victimization, the largest risk factor is child sexual abuse. The CDC estimates that people with an ACEs score of four or more are eight times more likely to be victims of rape, with female children being at an increased risk in comparison to males. Thus, a female child who was the victim of child sexual abuse will have a greater risk of experiencing sexual victimization during adulthood.

While, for each ACE that a male child experiences, the risk that the child will become violent increases from anywhere between 35%-144%, depending on the type of ACEs they experience (parental incarceration, divorce, poverty, racism, etc.). Although male children experience sexual victimization less than female children, sexual victimization has a greater impact on male children’s drug use, antisocial behavior, and depressive symptoms as they are less likely to seek external support.

Research by the CDC indicates that a higher ACEs score correlates with negative social, financial, and emotional outcomes in life, including but not limited to the following:

· Poor academic outcomes and dropping out

· Mental and physical health issues

· Child welfare involvement/foster care

· Gang involvement

· Homelessness

· Commercial sexual exploitation

· Domestic trafficking

· Substance abuse

· Social isolation/lack of capital

Conclusion: The Silver Lining

In sum, not all children who have adverse or traumatic experiences in their childhood develop health issues or become victims or perpetrators of violent crime. Protective factors such as safe neighborhoods, access to trusted adults, school counseling services with screening for at-risk youth, and programs that promote financial support for families below the poverty line can play a critical role in mitigating the negative health effects associated with childhood adversity.

Furthermore, training can empower law enforcement, first responders, medical personnel, victim advocates and prosecutors with the practical tools needed to recognize and respond to children in at-risk environments through trauma-informed support that is proven to ultimately reduce overall violent crime and victimization throughout our nation. Check out NCVC's new training entitled “Adverse Childhood Experiences” for an in-depth look at childhood adversity and its relationship with violent crime and victimization. Learn more about how we can provide your team with trauma-informed approaches for engagement and intervention with communities and individuals experiencing ACEs.

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