In the seminal survey of 9508 adults in the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, Felitti and colleagues [1
] introduced the concept of adverse childhood experiences to account for the negative health and behavioral consequences of various forms of childhood abuse, neglect, and exposure to household dysfunction. The seminal ACE study and subsequent studies [2
] supported the notion that individuals who endured more adverse childhood experiences tended to suffer the most throughout the life course and evinced the greatest number of health problems, maladaptive behaviors, and comorbid psychiatric conditions.
One of the maladaptive behaviors that results from adverse childhood experiences is antisocial behavior. In recent years, criminologists have utilized the adverse childhood experiences conceptual framework to examine associations with delinquency, crime, and serious violence. It has become clear that diverse adverse childhood experiences are fairly pervasive among clinical and correctional samples relative to those in the general population. For example, Baglivio and colleagues [6
] examined a sample of more than 60,000 juvenile offenders from the United States and found that delinquents were significantly more likely than those in the general population to have pervasive adverse childhood experiences and significantly less likely to never experience adverse childhood experiences. In other words, clinical samples of youth evince a high preponderance of abusive experiences and deprivation. These findings were consistent with studies of youth residing in detention, correctional, and confinement facilities [7
] where adverse childhood experiences are endemic.
There is also compelling evidence that adverse childhood experiences are particularly serious risk factors for more pathological forms of offending. For instance, Fox and colleagues [12
] reported that each additional adverse childhood experience increased the likelihood of serious, violent, and chronic juvenile offending by 35%. Others have similarly found that adverse childhood experiences were linked to more severe offending trajectories, earlier onset of antisocial conduct, and shorter time to recidivism post-juvenile justice services [13
]. For instance, Boduszek and colleagues [15
] found that male prisoners in Poland who had been exposed to family violence were approximately six times more likely to perpetrate a homicide than offenders who lacked violence exposure. In terms of sexual violence, a host of investigators have found that assorted adverse childhood experiences, particularly childhood sexual abuse victimization, were associated with an increased likelihood of perpetrating sexual crimes during adolescence or adulthood [16
]. The evidence is clear that adverse childhood experiences increase the liability for externalizing symptoms and diverse forms of antisocial conduct.
Despite these general findings, there remain important knowledge gaps. For instance, in the United States there is extraordinary heterogeneity of background experiences among delinquents in addition to sharply divergent local life circumstances and socioeconomic backgrounds by race and ethnicity [22
], which have been demonstrated to affect adverse childhood experience wherein juvenile offenders residing in more disadvantaged communities evidence greater exposures. Prior criminological research has shown that disaggregated analyses by race and ethnicity are a fruitful way to understand different pathways of offending [27
]. Given these varying background experiences, it is unclear to what extent adverse childhood experiences are associated with crime in the same way for different racial and ethnic groups, and to what degree the adverse childhood experience effects are potentially crime-specific. For example, Duke and colleagues [30
] examined 136,549 youth who responded to the 2007 Minnesota Student Survey and found differential associations between adverse childhood experiences by race and gender in addition to differential effects on specific forms of antisocial behavior, including delinquency, bullying, physical fighting, dating violence, and weapons carrying. Adverse childhood experiences were negatively associated with delinquency, but positively associated with various forms of violence and weapons carrying. To our knowledge, no prior study has examined the adverse childhood experiences-crime link using models that are disaggregated by race, ethnicity, and offense type. The current study was conducted to examine three research questions: (1) whether there are differential effects for the number of adverse childhood experiences that a youth experienced; (2) whether these effects vary across race and ethnic groups, and (3) whether the adverse childhood experiences-antisocial behavior association depends on the commitment offense type.
Adverse childhood experiences have been shown to have long-term effects on behavioral functioning and have recently been utilized by criminologists as a conceptual framework to understand antisocial development [6
]. Using a large sample of 2520 serious male juvenile delinquents, the current study examined whether there were differential effects on crime based on the number of adverse childhood experiences that a ward experienced, whether these effects varied across race and ethnic groups, and whether the adverse childhood experiences’ association with offending depended on the commitment offense type. The results revealed that adverse childhood experiences do not operate on criminal outcomes in a directly linear manner and have considerably differential effects.
First, it is not the case that a youth who has been exposed to the greatest number of adverse childhood experiences will necessarily be at the greatest risk of offending. Youth who had six adverse childhood experiences were 72% less likely to be committed for homicide, 413% more likely to be committed for a sexual offense, and 50% less likely to be committed for a serious person/property offense. Across models, these inconsistent effects were common. In the unadjusted model, African Americans with one adverse childhood experience were 39% less likely to be committed for homicide, whereas in the adjusted model for whites, those who had six adverse childhood experiences were 85% less likely to be committed for homicide. Still, there was also evidence of a gradient effect for crimes other than homicide. There was a clear positive trend where more adverse childhood experiences were associated with a greater likelihood of sexual offending, and in the total sample and among Hispanics, a negative trend where more adverse childhood experiences were associated with less risk for serious person/property offending.
Second, adverse childhood experiences had differential associations with the three offenses by racial and ethnic group. African Americans with one adverse childhood experience were 39% less likely to be committed for homicide in the unadjusted model. Hispanics with four adverse childhood experiences were 100% more likely to be committed for homicide. Whites with five or six adverse childhood experiences were 68% and 85% less likely, respectively, to be committed for homicide in the unadjusted model. There was more consistency in the effects for sexual offense where adverse childhood experiences were associated with elevated risk for sexual offending across racial and ethnic groups. However, even within this consistency, there were differences. Among wards with five adverse childhood experiences, the likelihood of being committed for sexual offense was 367% for African Americans, 314% for Hispanics, and 257% for whites. Whites with fewer adverse childhood experiences had extremely high likelihood of commitment of a serious person/property offense (Odds Ratio = 4.87 for one adverse childhood experience and Odds Ratio = 4.29 for two adverse childhood experiences), yet African Americans and Hispanics with between three and five adverse childhood experiences had reduced likelihood of serious person/property offending. Although non-white offenders experience generally more disadvantaged backgrounds [24
] than whites, that was not the case in these current data. Whites had the highest mean adverse childhood experiences (Mean = 2.43, Standard Deviation = 1.71), followed by Hispanics (Mean = 2.01, Standard Deviation = 1.42) and African Americans (Mean = 1.94, Standard Deviation = 1.41), and these group differences were significant (F(3, 2520)
= 17.00, p
< 0.0001). This finding is consistent with prior work which indicated a higher proportion of white juvenile offenders at the extreme upper end of the range of adverse childhood experiences (22% compared to 15% of African American youth and 11% of Hispanic youth) [22
Third, adverse childhood experiences were not associated with homicide, sexual offending, and serious person/property offending in the same ways. The effects were mostly negative for homicide, were sharply positive for sexual offending, and were negative for serious person/property offending, with the exception of whites where the effects were positive. Other criminologists have also recently found evidence of adverse childhood experiences on specific forms of crime and negative behaviors. For instance, Perez and colleagues [39
] found that adverse childhood experiences were directly associated with substance abuse and with serious, violent, and chronic delinquency in their study of more than 64,000 delinquent youth in Florida. However, the effects were rather small, with adverse childhood experiences increasing the likelihood of substance abuse by 14% and of serious, violent, and chronic delinquency by 8%. Additional research is needed to examine how and to what degree adverse childhood experiences are associated with variance in specific forms of serious crime, including homicide and aggravated robbery. Moreover, while there is considerable evidence that sexual abuse victimization can be a distal predictor of subsequent sexual offending [17
], much less is known about how poverty, physical abuse, emotional abuse, and other deprivations are linked to other forms of violence.
There are clear policy applications from our findings. Any program that attempts to reduce various forms of childhood abuse and neglect, and to generally reduce the incidence of adverse childhood experiences is certainly a worthy endeavor. Even one type of adverse childhood experience can be the driving force in propelling a youth toward delinquent and other antisocial conduct. Central among these programs would be parenting education and training that provides adaptive, instructive ways for parents to interact with and discipline their children. These healthy alternatives engender a cascade of healthy development compared to the pernicious and enduring effects of abuse and neglect.
There are key limitations to the present study that should be considered to not only contextualize the findings, but also to guide future research. There are numerous important criminological variables, such as religiosity, family support, and various social bonds that we lacked measures of and thus were not able to specify them in the multivariate models. Although the adjusted models controlled for three important parameters of the delinquent career, there were omitted variables that would be helpful to specify the mechanisms by which adverse childhood experiences translate into elevated or attenuated risks for various types of serious delinquency. It is likely that the inconsistent ways that adverse childhood experiences manifest in crime in the present study are reflective of the mechanism advanced by differential susceptibility theory [41
]. Some youth suffer considerably from even one adverse childhood experience, such as the case of whites in the current data and their risk for serious person/property offending, whereas others are able to avoid specific forms of crime despite many adverse childhood experiences, such as the case of whites in the current data and their risk for homicide. In their landmark study, Caspi and colleagues [43
] revealed how specific genetic polymorphisms moderate abuse experiences and explain differential antisocial outcomes. Biosocial scholars should model adverse childhood experiences relative to well-known genetic risks for antisocial traits and behaviors, such as dopaminergic and serotonergic genes, to more clearly articulate for whom adverse childhood experiences are most damaging.
Another fruitful research endeavor is to examine adverse childhood experiences vis-à-vis psychopathic traits and serious offending. Anda and colleagues [44
] found that persons with a score of five or more (maximum of eight) adverse childhood experiences had nearly a three-fold increase in psychopathic personality features. Given the strong association between psychopathy and the most severe forms of juvenile delinquency [45
] and the association between psychopathy and instrumental forms of offending, such as murder, rape, and armed robbery, it is likely that some of the youth in the current study exhibited these traits, but we were unable to measure them. Moreover, a bevy of studies have revealed that psychopathic offenders often experience severely abusive and neglectful childhoods [49
], which contributes to their pernicious antisocial development. However, no studies to our knowledge have explicitly examined the interplay between psychopathy and adverse childhood experiences relative to crime.
The current study examined only three types of offending; thus, future research should extend this by examining other types of offenses. There could be interesting developmental sequela associated with specific forms of offending. For instance, Dube and colleagues’ [55
] study of the original ACE data found that each additional adverse childhood experience increased the likelihood of early initiation of drug use two- to four-fold, and those with the greatest number of adverse childhood experiences were seven to 10 times more likely to be early-onset drug users. However, it is likely that some adverse childhood experiences, such as parents who openly use drugs in front of their children or furnish drugs to their children, would produce a stronger association with drug crimes than poverty or emotional abuse, for instance. In addition, the coding of adverse childhood experiences might obscure variation. Counts used here reflect the diversity of experiences but not the frequency or severity of those experiences, nor the relationship of the youth to the perpetrator. It is possible that frequency and severity vary by subgroup and the resultant error from this omission contributes to the discrepant findings. Additional study of adverse childhood experiences and specific forms of crime could also inform the understanding of criminal specialization to the degree that a specific form of abuse is associated with subsequent offending, as in the case of sexual abuse/sexual assault [17