The Cycle of Violence Revisited .


Series: NIJ Research Preview

Published: February 1996

3 pages

6,285 bytes


The Cycle of Violence Revisited


What happens to abused and neglected children after

they grow up? Do the victims of violence and

neglect later become criminals or violent offenders



A series of ongoing studies (sponsored by the

National Institute of Justice, the National

Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and the

National Institute of Mental Health) are examining

the lives of 1,575 child victims identified in

court cases of abuse and neglect dating from 1967

to 1971. By 1994, almost half of the victims (most

of whom were then in their late twenties and early

thirties) had been arrested for some type of

nontraffic offense. Eighteen percent had been

arrested for a violent crime--an increase of 4

percent in the 6 years since arrest records were

first checked. Rates of arrest were at least 25

percent higher among black victims.


Another key finding was that neglected children's

rates of arrest for violence were almost as high as

physically abused children's. Neglect was defined

by the court as an excessive failure by caregivers

to provide food, clothing, shelter, and medical



Although the study is not yet completed, these

preliminary findings indicate a need for criminal

justice and social service agencies to take a

proactive, preventive stance to stop the cycle of

violence. The goal is early identification of

abused and neglected children and careful,

sensitive handling of these cases to avoid an early

criminal justice intervention that could become the

first in a spiral of sanctions.


Study methods


Begun in 1986, the initial study was designed to

overcome many of the methodological problems of

earlier studies conducted on this topic, such as

dependence on a retrospective approach, a

short-term timeframe, or data derived from

self-reports. The study was based on documented

records: a sample of 1,575 court cases of physical

abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect that had occurred

from 1967 to 1971 in a midwestern county. At the

time the cases came to court, all of the children

were under the age of 11, and the mean age was

about 6. To isolate the effects of abuse and

neglect from those of other variables, such as

gender, race, and poverty, researchers created a

control group whose members matched the sample on

the basis of age, gender, race, and family social



During the first phase of the study, in 1987 and

1988, researchers examined the criminal records of

sample and control group members and compiled

histories for all nontraffic offenses at the local,

State, and Federal levels. To learn what was

happening to those who were not arrested,

researchers performed a national death index search

in 1989 and began interviewing victims in the

sample group; more than 1,100 interviews have been

completed. In 1994, researchers again examined

arrest records of both the sample and control



Risk of arrest


In the late eighties, researchers found that 28

percent of the sample group had been arrested--11

percent for a violent crime. Of the control group,

21 percent had been arrested--8 percent for a

violent crime. They also noted that differences in

arrest rates between members of the two groups

began to emerge early--at the ages of 8 and 9.

However, at this time, only 65 percent of the

victims had passed through the peak years of

violent offending--from age 20 to 25.


Six years later, almost 100 percent of the sample

were 26 or older. After recompiling criminal

histories, researchers found larger differences

between the sample and control groups. This time,

49 percent of the overall sample group had been

arrested--18 percent for a violent crime--compared

with 38 percent of the control group--14 percent

for a violent crime. Although rates were high for

the control group (who shared such risk factors as

poverty), they were significantly higher for those

neglected and abused as children.


Abuse and neglect appeared to magnify preexisting

disparities between the races. Black individuals

who had been abused or neglected as children were

being arrested at much higher rates than white

individuals with the same background: in the sample

group, 82 percent of black males and 50 percent of

black females had been arrested for some type of

offense; 50 percent of black victims had an arrest

for violence.


An important finding was that neglect appeared to

be just as damaging as physical abuse. The rate of

arrest for violent crimes among those sample group

members who had been neglected as children was

almost as high as the rate for those who had been

physically abused.


Additional findings


During the interviews, both males and females

reported having made suicide attempts. Males seemed

to be at increased risk for antisocial personality

disorder or psychopathy, whereas females seemed to

be at increased risk for alcoholism and

prostitution. Contrary to popular belief, however,

no relationship was established between childhood

abuse and neglect and teen pregnancy.


Breaking the cycle of violence


The researchers urged further study on the causes

of the race-specific risk of arrest for blacks.

Because differences in arrest rates between members

of the sample and control groups began to emerge

around the ages of 8 and 9, early identification of

abused and neglected children and circumspect

handling of their cases are essential. The

community policing approach, which emphasizes

problem-solving and prevention, may provide

appropriate opportunities for thoughtful criminal

justice interventions.



As part of NIJ's Research in Progress Seminar

Series, Dr. Cathy Spatz Widom discussed the cycle of

violence with an audience of researchers and

criminal justice practitioners. This research is

part of an ongoing NIJ grant to Dr. Widom, State

University of New York-Albany, and Dr. Michael

Maxfield, Indiana University. A 60-minute

VHS videotape The Cycle of Violence Revisited

Six Years Later is available for $19 in the

United States and $24 in Canada. Call 800-851-3420

to order; ask for NCJ 153272.


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