Adverse Childhood Experiences

The Research & Evaluation Center hosts the work of Dr.Kevin Wolff and his colleagues who are exploring the relationship between adverse childhood experiences and offending trajectories among youth involved in the justice system. Their 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.

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.

Researchers 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?

Recent Studies

Wolff, Kevin T., Michael T. Baglivio, and Alex R. Piquero (forthcoming 2016). The Relationship Between Adverse Childhood Experiences and Recidivism in a Sample of Juvenile Offenders in Community-Based Treatment. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, published online before print, November 12, 2015.

Craig, Jessica M., Michael T. Baglivio, Kevin T. Wolff, Alex R. Piquero and Nathan Epps (forthcoming 2016). Do Social Bonds Buffer the Impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences on Reoffending? Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, published online before print, February 14, 2016.

Wolff, Kevin T. and Michael T. Baglivio (forthcoming 2016). Adverse Childhood Experiences, Negative Emotionality, and Pathways to Juvenile Recidivism. Crime & Delinquency, published online before print, January, 29, 2016.

Michael T. Baglivio, Michael T., Kevin T. Wolff, Alex R. Piquero, and Nathan Epps (2015). The Relationship between Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) and Juvenile Offending Trajectories in a Juvenile Offender Sample. Journal of Criminal Justice, 43(3): 229–241.

Baglivio, Michael T., Kevin T. Wolff, Nathan Epps, and Randy Nelson (2017). Predicting Adverse Childhood Experiences: The Importance of Neighborhood Context in Youth Trauma Among Delinquent Youth. Crime & Delinquency, 62(2), 166-188.