Understanding childhood adversity, resilience and crime

Summary of evidence on links between childhood adversity and criminality in adulthood.

2 What do we know about the childhoods of justice ‘users’?

Although Scottish data is limited, international evidence consistently shows high levels of childhood trauma and maltreatment in adult perpetrators and victims of certain crimes. Both criminality and victimisation can be intergenerational which points to the need to support families at the earliest stage possible. The list of 10 ACEs which is used in many ACEs studies does not cover all childhood factors associated with crime. There may therefore be merit in policy responses aimed at reducing crime to consider a wider range other childhood adversities.

Did you know that in Scotland…

45% Adult prisoner survey respondents reported that they had been physically abused in their home as a child

61% Adult prisoner survey respondents had been bullied at school or somewhere else

56% Young people in custody said they had been sworn at, humiliated, or put down by an adult in their home

ACEs and childhood risk factors for Criminality

ACEs and childhood risk factors for Criminality

People who experience multiple ACEs are more likely to be a victim of violence in adulthood than people who have no ACEs.

Research shows that people who are abused as children are more likely to be abused as an adult. As ACE scores increase, so too does adult sexual victimisation (Ports et al, 2016). People who experience child abuse or witness domestic violence in childhood are more likely to be abused by a partner in adulthood than those who did not experience abuse/witness violence, particularly women. ( CSEW, 2017)

These studies point to the importance of understanding the role of childhood maltreatment in preventing and addressing victimisation in adulthood.

People who offend are more likely to experience traumatic childhoods than the general population.

US studies report a higher incidence of ACEs in various offending groups (Leitch, 2017). Whilst equivalent research does not exist in the UK, prison surveys in the UK and in Scotland report high rates of childhood abuse, family violence, experience of being in care and school exclusion in people in prison. ( MOJ, 2012; SPS, 2015)

Having a convicted family member and being excluded from school have been reported as risk factors for reoffending in adulthood. ( MOJ, 2012)

Many childhood adversities, including those not included in the standard ACEs framework, tend to co-exist which makes it hard to identify which risk factors best predict criminality - some risk factors may be the result of early childhood trauma e.g. neurological deficits. However, some ACEs research has drawn links between specific ACEs (e.g. child sexual abuse) and specific types of crime (e.g. sex offending).

Further research is needed to understand the causal mechanisms between childhood adversity/trauma and different types of criminality and victimisation in adulthood.

Points for Reflection

Much less is known about the incidence and effect of childhood trauma on male offenders and victims.

Given that men are more likely to be a victim of violent crime and that the rate of conviction is higher for men, further research is needed.


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