Is There a Connection Between Childhood Trauma and Criminal Behavior?

One of the most common issues that arises during my representation of juvenile clients as an Orange County juvenile delinquency lawyer is to what extent their upbringing contributed to the conduct that brought them into court.

While study after study has demonstrated a powerful link between childhood hardship and later anti-social behavior, only recently have there been studies comparing the frequency of negative childhood events in juvenile offenders with a broad, general sample from the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) database. One recent study conducted in Florida showed a definitive link between adverse childhood experience and juvenile delinquency. The study was the first in the United States to specifically explore whether these adverse experiences was correlated to juvenile crime. The results were startling, especially after four or more adverse childhood experiences were reported, with 50% of juvenile offenders reporting four or more ACEs.

The ACE database has been compiled as a result of a long-term collaboration between Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, California and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia. With over 17,000 participants, ACE sought to determine if a link existed between childhood trauma and health, social and economic consequences. The results were overwhelmingly conclusive: There is a powerful connection between negative childhood experiences and later risks surrounding criminality and other negative social consequences. This is important information to understand as a juvenile delinquency attorney in Orange County.

The questionnaire sought information on negative childhood experiences that occurred before the subject’s 18th birthday, relating to categories of abuse, (whether psychological, physical or sexual), neglect and household dysfunction. Added to this were questions regarding substance abuse, mental illness and whether a family member had been incarcerated. Numerous studies using this data showed a strong correlation between those reporting abuse during childhood and that person’s own later willingness to engage in violence, whether sexual or physical, on the order of eight to forty-five times more likely. There is an increasing body of data that has examined criminal offenders and found they were four times more likely than average to report the negative childhood incidents.

The ACE test consists of only ten questions and the experiences are not necessarily what we might associated with childhood trauma, such as severe child abuse or beatings. The ACE questions, for example, include whether, as a child, the test taker was often humiliated by a parent or other adult, whether a parent often pushed or grabbed the test taker, whether the test taker often felt unloved, and whether the test taker’s parents were divorced before the test taker’s 18th birthday. To be sure, a few of the questions ask about more serious childhood traumas such as sexual abuse or whether a parent went to prison, but most of the questions concern more commonplace experiences. Yet, a score of four or more on this test strongly correlates to risk factors for juvenile delinquency and future criminality. This does not, in any way, mean that a person who scores four or more will become a law breaker—the vast majority will not. A better way to look at it is those who do break the law are likely to have four or more ACE experiences before their 18th birthday.

As an Orange County juvenile delinquency attorney, it is vital in my defense of juveniles that I gain an understanding of how my juvenile client has been raised and whether he or she has been exposed to childhood trauma, or even on-going trauma. Often this requires the cooperation of the juvenile’s parent, which can be an uncomfortable situation but can also lead to a better awareness of their parenting skills as well as helping me navigate their child through the juvenile justice system. I make every effort to bring to the court’s attention all the influences in the child’s life that could have contributed to the choices they made that brought them before the court. In doing this, a fairer, fuller picture of a child is presented and better outcomes may be achieved.

The juvenile justice system is not the same as the criminal justice system. Your child needs an attorney with experience defending juveniles. William Weinberg limits his practice to criminal and juvenile matters only and has the experience to effectively represent your child. Contact Mr. Weinberg at (949) 474-8008 or by email at for a complimentary consultation regarding your child’s juvenile matter.

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