July | August 2018

Research Central: The Importance of Protective Factors in Reducing the Likelihood of Delinquency Among Children Who Are Maltreated

Child abuse and maltreatment occur too frequently in our country. In 2016 alone, 7.4 million children were referred to the child welfare system. The associations between maltreatment and potential life outcomes are complicated. However, research shows that children who experience maltreatment or abuse are at greater risk for many potential negative outcomes—including future delinquency.

In 2016, OJJDP funded the nonprofit research organization Child Trends to investigate protective factors in the relationship between maltreatment and delinquency. Protective factors are characteristics of the child, family, or environment that reduce the likelihood of experienced adversities leading to negative outcomes. Using a large, nationally representative sample from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, researchers used self-reported data from youth to examine how certain factors may reduce the potential risk of violent and nonviolent delinquent or criminal behaviors among youth who had experienced maltreatment.

The findings were consistent with earlier studies suggesting that youth who experienced maltreatment in childhood are more likely to engage in both nonviolent and violent delinquent and criminal behaviors. However, they also found certain protective factors could help mitigate this connection.

For nonviolent behaviors, researchers found that a connection to school and a high-quality relationship with a parent or guardian had protective effects that were especially strong for youth who experienced maltreatment.

For violent behaviors, researchers found that a connection to school, a high-quality relationship with a parent or guardian, as well as neighborhood collective efficacy (i.e., the capacity of the community to exert informal social controls) had protective effects for all youth in the sample, and did not vary by maltreatment status. The findings also showed that the effects of the protective factors did not vary by a child’s gender, race and/or ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

These findings are an important reminder to juvenile justice practitioners about the potential benefits of programs that target protective factors. Although a child who has experienced maltreatment may have an increased risk for future offending, efforts to increase access to, and the effectiveness of, programs that promote positive connections to school, strengthen parenting skills and familial relationships, and support resident-driven, public safety initiatives may mitigate or even eliminate this risk.



Additional information on OJJDP’s research efforts examining the longitudinal connection between maltreatment and later offending in youth is available online.

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act that established OJJDP authorizes the Administrator to conduct research and evaluations and undertake statistical analyses on issues related to juvenile offending and victimization. Because OJJDP is the only Office of Justice Programs agency with dual mandates for research and programs, we are uniquely positioned to integrate research in our programmatic functions, and we are committed to translating research into practice.

Look to this recurring column authored by members of OJJDP’s Research Unit to distill topically relevant and timely OJJDP-supported research.