Juvenile delinquency is a complex social problem that significantly impacts all members and processes of a social structure. Delinquency refers to a set of behaviors that are not in line with the collective practices and/or ethics of the dominant social group. Essentially, these behaviors deviate from societal norms and more specifically they violate established criminal codes and laws. Juvenile delinquency
incorporates not only general criminal activity but conduct that is only unlawful for youths such as running away from home and skipping school. Current research into this difficult and pressing issue reflects a vast range of theories about, and predictors of delinquency as well as a multitude of strategies to control and reduce overall delinquency. The consensus among practitioners and researchers however maintains that
juvenile delinquency is a dynamic, multifaceted problem with numerous potentially causal factors. Subsequently, investigators and professionals suggest that treatment procedures must focus on not only the immediate issue of the offender’s deviant behavior but on every element within the context of that behavior as well, including for
example, family relations and social support services/networks.
Conventional practice has long associated early preventive measures with positive delinquency reduction results. In particular, timely recognition of at-risk youth and correction of ineffective or minimally effective parenting techniques are critical to the prevention of future delinquency (Lundman, 1993). Numerous risk factors have been identified as indicators or predictors of juvenile delinquency and those factors represent dysfunction at several levels, specifically within the structure of the offender’s family. Some of these factors include conflict within the family, a lack of adequate supervision and/or rules, a distinct lack of parent-child attachment, instability, poor home life quality, parental expectations, out-of-home placements and inconsistent discipline (Shumaker, 1997). Social service professionals who frequently come into contact with children must be especially vigilant in order to detect the presence of any of the possibly contributory conditions mentioned above and to refer families to appropriate sources of assistance as early as possible.
Generally speaking, the relationship between family conflict and delinquency is significant. There are many types of family conflict but the absence of communication and the inability to solve problems are two of the most fundamental forms relative to future delinquency. The nature of these conflicts is cyclical in that communication and problem-solving breakdowns increase the incidences of delinquency which in turn increase the stress and conflict levels within the family leading to more instances of deviant behavior (Smith & Stern, 1997). Educators, clinicians and other professionals who provide services for children should carefully evaluate reports from children regarding such things as parental fighting, abuse and/or neglect so that they may obviously address those immediate concerns but also assess the possible need for preventive intervention.
Structure is very important in the life of a developing child. Most of that necessary structure is provided by the parents/family. Rules or guidelines are inherently part of that structure and careful parental supervision is essential to the derivation and implementation of those rules. For example, children should always have to tell their parents where they are and whom they’re with. A parent should be diligent in his/her supervision to the extent that (s)he actually knows the whereabouts of his /her children at all times ( Shumaker, 1997). Service professionals should understand the relationship between lack of supervision/rules in the home and possible future criminal behavior among youths and should be solicitous in their observations.
Parent-child attachment is also a key factor in the delinquency of a minor. Attachment refers to the process that bonds a child to a parent and is usually completed in infancy. It is generally held that children who are insecurely attached to their parents are more likely to commit crimes. However, there are some therapeutic techniques which can be employed to increase the strength of a relationship throughout childhood (Shumaker, 1997). Researchers suggest that social service workers should pay close attention to a child feeling “unloved” or unimportant as these feelings can be indicative of poor attachments and may lead to juvenile criminality.
Delinquency can further be related to degrees of instability in an offender’s life. Instability is generally characterized by stress, carrying out threats or promises (Patterson, 1986), frequent changes of residence/friends, dramatic changes in the family, sickness, alcoholism (Bennett, 1960), absence of household routine, precarious financial situations, eviction, death, desertion, separation or divorce (Glueck and Glueck, 1950). Attempts should be made by service providers to assess the extent to which a child experiences instability in the home as unchecked instability can contribute to delinquency.
The quality of a child’s home life can also positively or negatively affect behavioral outcomes. A home life of poor quality can involve low levels of affection, comfort, supervision and home security (Shumaker, 1997). If a child’s home life is inadequate or unsatisfactory then professional intervention will almost assuredly be necessary to address all of the problem components of the home life. Multiple strategies will have to be employed concurrently and optimally all members of the family will have to be involved in improving the overall quality of the home environment.
Studies have shown that what parents expect from their children also affects the likelihood of future delinquency. Typically parents who set high but reasonable standards of conduct have children who are less likely to commit crimes (Wilson, 1980; Laybourn, 1986; Glueck & Glueck, 1950). Parents must teach and encourage their children to behave within a certain set of clear and realistic expectations. Children who underachieve in school for example may have parents whose expectations of them are comparatively lower. Child service workers may have to intervene to help parents set limits and positively reinforce appropriate behavior.
The removal from the home and placement of children outside the home has been linked to delinquency among juveniles. Research has suggested that children who are removed from their homes or frequently transferred between foster homes will exhibit higher rates of delinquency (Bennett, 1960; Towberman, 1994). The out-of-home placement factor has the potential to create serious problems for the child as it may exacerbate many of the other previously mentioned factors such as instability, quality of home life and attachment formation. Researchers suggest that service providers avoid removal from the home whenever possible and to minimize the frequency with which a child moves between foster homes (Shumaker, 1997).
Inconsistent discipline has been found as a significant, contributing factor to juvenile delinquency. Parents who ignore inappropriate behavior, are negligent about consistently punishing all misbehaviors with pre-established punishments or who threaten punishment but don’t follow through with it will raise children who are more likely to engage in delinquent behavior ( Glueck & Glueck, 1950; Laub & Sampson, 1998; Wells and Rankin, 1988). Social workers and other professionals might need to help families establish guidelines for appropriate conduct and consequences for misbehavior.
In addition to the previously discussed contributing factors, there are several theories that attempt to explain why juveniles engage in criminal behavior. Current research suggests that delinquent behavior is learned behavior and not genetically encoded. Two of the most prominent theories are Differential Association theory and Social Control theory.
Shoemaker’s (1994) Differential Association theory relies on three fundamental assumptions. First, this theory assumes that all behavior that is not genetically derived is learned behavior. The second assumption states that the acquisition of behavior occurs in relatively small and informal groups. The final assumption maintains that behavior develops from a person’s entire life experience as a whole as well as from particular instances and recent events. Differential Association theory posits that if a child displays deviant/delinquent behavior then (s)he ultimately learned that behavior from the people closest to him/her. Clearly this theory supports investigation of delinquency within and through the context of the family, close peer groups and close social groups.
The second notable theory, Social Control theory, was proposed by Curran and Renzetti (1994). Social Control theory suggests that a person’s ties or bonds to social institutions such as family, church, school, etc. prevent him or her from pursuing criminal activity. This theory is based on the concept that people commit crime because it is the easiest, most efficient, most gratifying way to satisfy one’s needs and/or wants. Therefore, if children are relatively unattached to elements of their surrounding social institutions, they are more likely to become juvenile offenders.
Despite the prominence of these theories, recent studies have shown that regardless of the theory utilized, there has been little impact on the reduction of juvenile arrest and crime (Jensen & Howard, 1998). Generally speaking, intervention in an attempt to understand and reduce juvenile criminality has been family centered. Several current studies employing a variety of methods have shown some promising effects.
Intensive, home-based treatment programs such as Home Ties have demonstrated a degree of success. The data collected show that these treatment programs were able to significantly reduce the need for out-of-home placements both initially and after a twelve month period (Haapala &Kinney, 1988). This study examined participants who were already involved with the juvenile justice system however and therefore the need to incorporate these treatment strategies/modalities into early intervention/prevention programs becomes apparent (Shumaker, 1997).
Parent training classes have also proven somewhat beneficial but there are still some systemic problems which inhibit their success (Shumaker, 1997). For instance, parents must be able to perceive some reward for participating in training programs. Additionally, programs must broaden their value and belief systems to include those of other religious, economic and political convictions as opposed to trying to impose democratic, middle class values on service recipients. Furthermore, new parent training regimens must focus on problem-specific curriculum to educate parents about contributing factors and warning signs.
According to Lipsey, Wilson and Cothern (2000), there were several treatment modalities that demonstrated positive effects. This study observed consistent, positive effects among noninstitutionalized juvenile offenders through the employment of individual counseling, improvement of interpersonal skills (including problem solving, role taking and anger management), as well as the implementation of behavioral programs (established by court-ordered family therapy sessions). Consistent, positive effects were also observed in institutionalized juvenile offenders as a result of improvement in interpersonal skills and use of Teaching Family Homes (community-based residential programs where “teaching parents” attempt to correct delinquency through behavior modification).
Although there has been considerable investigation into juvenile delinquency, there are no definitive answers to the questions of causation or treatment. Literature reviews suggest that there are a multitude of causal variables and subsequently a multitude of potentially effective treatment modalities. It is clear that delinquency among minors does not exist in a vacuum and therefore solutions to this problem must take into account all of the contextual and situational elements surrounding the youth at risk. Further research is necessary in order to attain a more complete understanding of the complex nature of juvenile crime and how society can combat its detrimental effects.
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