Young offenders' behaviour points to more complex needs

Thursday, 12 March 2015

New research at the University of Adelaide is helping to shed light on the risks of young people engaging in criminal offences while in state care.

It's hoped this information can be used to tailor services addressing the complex needs of young people in state care, and turn them away from a potential life of crime.

School of Psychology PhD student Catia Malvaso has studied the cases of 300 young people across the nation.  The results of her work have been published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies.

"Our study is aimed at better understanding the pathway from child welfare to the juvenile justice system, and whether there are factors that increase the risks of young people offending while in out-of-home care," Ms Malvaso says.

She found that young offenders in this group were more likely to be male (65% compared with 35% female), with the chances of offending increasing with age.  The average age was 14.5 years – one-and-a-half years younger than the average arrest age of offending youth in the general community.

"Those at highest risk of offending are likely to have engaged in property crime, substance abuse and have personal conduct problems," Ms Malvaso says.

The research also found that being placed in residential state care – as opposed to foster care – was associated with an almost 12 times greater likelihood of offending.

"By the time young people are placed in state care, many have experienced aberrant and abusive home environments.  The environment they are then moved into also plays an important role in their further development," Ms Malvaso says.

"While some children are placed in foster care, involving ongoing foster parents, others are placed in residential or 'congregate' care.  This means they live in a house with other children in similar circumstances, with different carers working on a roster system across 24 hours."

Ms Malvaso says that although females in the study group were less likely to offend than males, the risk of offending jumped when females were placed in residential care instead of foster care.

"Young people with pre-existing behavioural and emotional disturbances are often placed in residential care, and this can be a challenging environment because they need to learn to live with other young people who have been through equally difficult circumstances," Ms Malvaso says.

"We are talking about a relatively small section of society, but our ultimate aim is to help prevent young people from engaging in a lifetime of offending, thereby avoiding significant personal costs as well as costs to the community," she says.

This research builds on a previous study conducted in the University of Adelaide's School of Psychology, and is funded with a Linkage Grant from the Australian Research Council (ARC).


Contact Details

Catia Malvaso
PhD student and Research Associate
School of Psychology
The University of Adelaide
Mobile: +61 (0)417 855 164

Mr David Ellis
Deputy Director, Media and Corporate Relations
External Relations
The University of Adelaide
Business: +61 8 8313 5414
Mobile: +61 (0)421 612 762