Adverse Childhood Experiences

The Research and Evaluation Center partnered with Dr.Kevin Wolff who explores the relationship between adverse childhood experiences and offending trajectories among youth involved in the justice system. Studies focus on the factors associated with adverse childhood experiences as well as the role of social bonds in buffering the impact of those experiences on crime and delinquency. Read more about this area of research.

Adverse childhood experiences affect the course of individual development well into adulthood. Felitti and colleagues (1998) were among the first to discover that a summary score of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) was strongly correlated with negative life outcomes in adults.

trauma4aResearchers have identified 10 key adverse childhood experiences: emotional abuse; physical abuse; sexual abuse; emotional neglect; physical neglect; violent treatment toward mother; household substance abuse; household mental illness; parental separation or divorce; and having an incarcerated household member (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2015). An ACE score that captures the total incidence of these experiences during childhood is associated with increased chances of heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures, and liver disease (Anda et al. 2006; Anda et al. 2010). ACE scores are calculated on a 10-point scale. Half the score is derived from maltreatment experiences (i.e. physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect) while the remaining half represents traumatic events that are not due to direct maltreatment.

Studies continue to expand the list of negative outcomes associated with ACE scores. In the United Kingdom, for example, a retrospective cross-sectional survey of 1,500 randomly sampled 18- to 70-year-old adults (stratified by economic disadvantage) found that higher cumulative ACE scores increased the presence of several negative outcomes. These included smoking, heavy drinking, and morbid obesity, as well as poor educational and employment outcomes, recent inpatient hospital care, incarceration, and recent involvement in violence (Bellis et al. 2014). Male youth, in particular, are more likely to exhibit violent behavior and delinquency if they experienced maltreatment during childhood (Barrett et al. 2014; Cicchetti and Manly 2001; Widom 1989).

trauma1Researchers are just beginning to consider the implications of ACE for policies and practices in the justice system. Obviously, it is important for justice systems to understand how an individual’s cumulative exposure to adverse experiences may have contributed to his or her present-day  behavior, but how should this understanding affect the justice system’s response to illegal acts? Do individuals with high ACE scores present a greater risk to public safety?

Studies point to a link between traumatic childhood events and antisocial behavior, but much less information is available about ACE scores as a predictor of continued criminal involvement. Would it ever be appropriate to use ACE scores to justify more severe sentencing and supervision for individual offenders, or should ACE merely help to inform intervention plans and treatment approaches? Most importantly, do the correlations between ACE and negative outcomes indicate a causal relationship, or do both sets of factors reflect the harmful consequences of lives affected by poverty, deprivation, and chronic stress?