Understanding childhood adversity, resilience and crime

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

4 A call for compassion? How to build resilience to reduce crime.

Building resilience in children and young people, and their families and communities, is crucial to reducing crime and victimisation. Cross-cutting policies are needed to identify and support children and their families at risk of early adversity at the earliest stage possible. The justice system is well placed to identify such families, and support victims and people who offend to promote their resilience and well-being, and reduce reoffending. There is an emerging body of evidence pointing to the value of trauma-informed approaches which advocate a more compassionate and strengths-based justice system.

Trauma-informed Care in Youth Justice
Common themes from US approaches to young people in custody
ACEs screening -
All children in custody are screened for ACEs.
Highly skilled professional staff -
trauma-informed training for staff (intensive training & input from psycologists)
Family engagement -
children and their families are involved in the treatment planning process
Caring culture -
shift from a sterile approach to a humane one
Partnership working with child welfare, education and health New custodial environments -
some states have replaced traditional prisons with ‘group homes’

A trauma-informed approach asks ‘What happened to you?’ not ‘What is wrong with you?’

Trauma-informed approaches in other countries tend to target women and young people in the justice system. Examples include ACEs screening in probation, community police hubs (similar to the Whole Systems Approach), trauma-informed case management for young offenders, problem-solving courts and trauma recovery programmes.

Although there is strong support for a trauma-informed approach in justice settings, there is a lack of robust evaluations and limited empirical evidence of its effectiveness, particularly in relation to men who offend.

What works to build resilience in children:

  • Facilitating supportive adult-child relationships;
  • Building a sense of self-efficacy and perceived control;
  • Providing opportunities to strengthen coping skills and self-control;
  • Mobilizing sources of faith, hope, and cultural traditions. (Harvard Center of the Developing Child)

What works to reduce crime

The most successful programmes for preventing youth offending are early intervention preventative programmes which focus on the family. These include:

  • Parenting programmes that focus on early parenting methods to improve children’s self-control (e.g. effective discipline), and to increase parental involvement in children’s education.
  • School-based programmes aimed at addressing truancy and exclusions, and improving self-control and social skills.
  • Home-visiting and pre-school education programmes which target at-risk children.

This evidence summary was undertaken by Tamsyn Wilson of Justice Analytical Services, Scottish Government between Nov 17-Jan 18. Evidence is drawn from a range of academic disciplines including criminology, health and psychology academic databases. Full references are available on request. Justice Analytical Services, Scottish Government, Victoria Quay, Leith, EH6 6QQ.

“It changes how you look at a person – whether you look at them as just a criminal or someone who had trauma in their background”

Points for Reflection

Although building resilience should be done at the earliest opportunity, it is never too late to support people affected by childhood adversity.

We need to test out approaches and build our evidence about ‘what works’ in relation to a trauma-informed justice system.


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