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Journal Article


Widom CS. Criminology 1989; 27(2): 251-271.


(Copyright © 1989, American Society of Criminology)






VioLit summary:

The objective of this study by Widom was to examine the relationship between childhood abuse and neglect and adult criminal behavior.

The author employed a quasi-experimental longitudinal prospective cohorts design, with a non-probability sample of 908 cases of court-substantiated child physical and sexual abuse and neglect, of children under the age of 11 years, from the years 1967 through 1971. A control group of 667 individuals with no official record of abuse or neglect was then identified, matched for sex, race, age and family socioeconomic status during the period under investigation. Data about incidents of abuse and neglect were obtained from the files of the juvenile court and probation department, and included descriptions about the nature of the original incident (type, seriousness, extent of injury, age of victim, duration of abuse or neglect, and characteristics of the perpetrator) and information on the disposition of the case. For cases that had been directed to the adult criminal courts, data were obtained from records that contained information about incidents of physical and sexual abuse and neglect, and about characteristics of victim and offender. Information about criminal histories was obtained from juvenile probation files, whilst adult criminal behavior was investigated using local, state and federal agencies. The first dependent variable, adult criminality, was measured as the frequency of arrest for a non-traffic offense. Violent offenses included robbery, assault, assault and battery, battery with injury, battery, aggravated assault, manslaughter-involuntary manslaughter/reckless homicide, murder/attempted murder, rape/sodomy, and robbery and burglary with injury. Property crimes included theft/shoplifting, burglary/attempted burglary, breaking and entering, possession of stolen property, larceny, arson, fraud/forgery, and embezzlement. Alcohol offenses included public intoxication and driving whilst under the influence, whilst drug offenses involved violations of the controlled substances laws. Order offenses included criminal mischief, vandalism, trespassing, disorderly conduct, visiting a common nuisance, resisting arrest, fleeing a police officer, and vagrancy. Sex offenses included prostitution, incest, child molestation, rape, assault and battery with intent to gratify, peeping, public indecency, criminal deviate conduct, and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Analyses employed in the study included examination of frequencies, testing of logit models, examination of goodness-of-fit statistics and odds ratios, chi-square and t-tests.

The author began by examining the frequencies of adult criminal records for each group, and found significant differences between the two. Of the abused and neglected group, 28.6% had an adult criminal record, compared with 21.1% of the control group. Males were significantly more likely than females to have a record (38.1% and 13.0% respectively). Abused and neglected males had a greater likelihood of having been arrested than male controls (42.0% versus 33.2%), as was the case with females (15.9% of abused compared with 9.0% of controls). Blacks had a significantly higher frequency of arrest than whites (33.2% and 21.8%), as did older subjects, for both the abused and neglected group and the control group. Examining models and goodness-of-fit statistics, the author found that the model with the explanatory variables of age, sex, race and group status provided quite a good fit. Two-thirds of the subjects who fell into the highest risk category--oldest, black, abused/neglected males--had adult criminal records, compared with almost none (4%) of the subjects in the lowest risk category--youngest, white, control females. The odds ratio for the two groups was 1.72, suggesting that the odds of having a criminal record were 1.72 times higher for those in the abused and neglected group than for those in the control group, when all other variables in the model were held constant. Turning to an analysis of the separate types of offenses, the author found that the abused and neglected group significantly differed from the controls only in property, sex, drugs and order offenses, although they had more frequent arrests for all categories. The chi-square for violent offenses approached significance (p<.10). Examining each category for each sex, abused and neglected males significantly differed from their control counterparts only in arrests for violent, property and sex offenses, whilst female abused and neglected subjects differed significantly from female controls only in frequency of arrest for property, order and drug offenses. The author concluded that childhood victimization had long-term consequences for adult criminal behavior, significantly increasing the risk of having an adult criminal record. Whilst the author stressed this finding of a cycle of violence, she noted that, since 71% of the abused and neglected subjects did not have adult criminal records, the strength of this cycle might not be as great as some have expected.

The author suggested that the cycle of violence hypothesis be reevaluated, and that research into this phenomenon include more complex multivariate models of the relationship between childhood victimization and adult criminality. Research should also include the exploration of alternative pathways and of possible protective factors that prevent the negative consequences of early victimization from taking hold. Further understanding of the path and the process from victimization to criminality was advocated, to explore the factors which might influence this outcome.

The author presents an interesting and informative exploration of the relationship between childhood abuse and neglect and subsequent adult criminality. The use of a large sample, a matched control group and a prospective design, and the use of only cases of abuse and neglect before the age of 11 to ensure that the temporal sequence of maltreatment leading to criminality was clear, combined with a clear operationalization of abuse and neglect and of adult criminal behavior, all indicate good methodologies, and suggest that the results can be accepted with substantial confidence in their reliability. However, by relying upon official records only, many cases are missed, and those that are included may represent only the more serious and extreme cases that were processed. Although a more thorough discussion of the implications of the results would have been helpful, the sound methodologies and clear discussion of the findings and of suggestions for future research, suggest that this study be considered as an important addition to the field, and as an excellent foundation upon which to build further research. (CSPV Abstract - Copyright © 1992-2007 by the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, Institute of Behavioral Science, Regents of the University of Colorado)

KW - 1960s
KW - 1970s
KW - Child Abuse-Crime Link
KW - Child Abuse Effects
KW - Child Abuse Victim
KW - Child Abuse-Violence Link
KW - Child Physical Abuse Effects
KW - Child Physical Abuse Victim
KW - Child Neglect Effects
KW - Child Neglect Victim
KW - Child Sexual Abuse Effects
KW - Child Sexual Abuse Victim
KW - Child Victim
KW - Childhood Experience
KW - Childhood Victimization
KW - Long-Term Effects
KW - Sexual Assault Effects
KW - Sexual Assault Victim
KW - Adult Offender
KW - Adult Violence
KW - Victim Turned Offender
KW - Domestic Violence Victim
KW - Domestic Violence Effects
KW - Violence Causes


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