Girls in state care at greater risk of criminal convictions

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The chances of a criminal conviction for South Australian girls who have experienced mistreatment at home and were subsequently placed in state-based out-of-home care is twice that of boys, according to new research from the University of Adelaide.

To better understand the patterns of criminal behaviour and convictions among at-risk young people, researchers in the University's School of Psychology studied data of more than 17,000 mistreated young people born between 1982 and 1997. Almost 4700 of those were placed at least once in out-of-home protective care after they were found to be mistreated.

Mistreatment includes acts that harm or have the potential to cause harm to young people, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, or neglect.

Psychology PhD student and research associate Catia Malvaso explored how factors such as gender and Indigenous or non-Indigenous background influenced the relationship between mistreatment and criminal convictions.

Ms Malvaso says: "Those experiencing mistreatment or out-of-home care are not destined to later engage in criminal behaviour. In fact, the vast majority (92%) of mistreated young people placed in state-based care did not have any criminal convictions, which is positive news.

"However, it's important for us to understand the circumstances of those hundreds of young people who are experiencing both the child protection and the youth justice systems, if we hope to make positive changes.

"While we know that for some young people out-of-home care is associated with a higher risk of offending in the community, when we looked at the role of gender and Indigenous or non-Indigenous background, some interesting results emerged.

"Young females with a history of placement in out-of-home care were 10 times more likely to be convicted of a crime compared to those not placed in care, while young males in out-of-home care were five times more likely to be convicted," she says.

"A further key finding is that the likelihood of a violent criminal conviction is greatly increased among non-Indigenous compared with Indigenous young people – Aboriginal young people placed in residential care were three times more likely to have convictions, whereas non-Aboriginal young people were almost eight times more likely to be convicted of violent crimes."

Among those convicted of a crime, the most common offences were, in order: property crime, breach of legal orders, violence, and drug offences.

"Although placement in out-of-home care provides a safe and nurturing environment for the vast majority of young people, there are some who continue to be at risk and who experience problems with impulse control, emotional regulation and behavioural problems. This may be due to the harm they have experienced in their early home environment," Ms Malvaso says.

"In certain cases, this behaviour is exacerbated during their stay in some forms of care, including exposure to other young people who might have a history of criminal offences."

Ms Malvaso's findings have implications for both child protection and the youth justice systems in South Australia and elsewhere.

"This work is important, not only because it validates international research findings using a large sample of South Australian young people, it extends that research by examining the relationships between gender, Indigenous and non-Indigenous background, and out-of-home placements on different types of crimes," she says.

"By exploring how these factors are different among males and females, and across different backgrounds, it's given us a greater insight into the relationship between mistreatment of young people in our community, their protection, and offending behaviour.

"We hope the findings of this research will be useful in the design and implementation of services aimed at both preventing the crossover of youth from child protection to the criminal justice system, and helping to protect and support vulnerable, at-risk young people who have suffered mistreatment," Ms Malvaso says.

The findings of this study were published in the journal Children and Youth Services Review.


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