When Early Life Abuse Leads to Criminality

Hy Bloom for The Lawyers Weekly

February 26, 2010

"Here's to crime!" I've heard it many times as a toast at the local watering hole by criminal lawyers after a long week in court. It's good spirited - nothing bad is meant by it. Many, if not most, of these lawyers have argued, as part of a sentencing pitch, that their client's criminality was spawned by psychological and emotional problems that were the result of childhood victimization. Why would this be relevant in a criminal sentencing?

It has now been well-established that childhood trauma, through physical and/or sexual abuse and/or neglect, is a pervasive phenomenon in the general population. Studies have demonstrated that nearly 40 per cent of the general population (up to 60 per cent of women, and 20 to 30 per cent of men) have experienced some form of abuse or neglect in childhood.

Childhood trauma shows relatively little selectivity and cuts a broad swath across community, gender, class, education, ethnicity, race, culture and geographic boundaries.

It is also well-established that higher rates of childhood abuse of all kinds are found in particular or special populations, such that its prevalence increases on a steep incline in psychiatric and offender populations. Research demonstrates that by the time one gets to the category of female offenders, between 80 to 90 per cent of them have experienced some form of abuse earlier in life.

Many offenders clearly come by their criminal and violent propensities honestly. If there was initially a prospect for normal psychosocial and moral development (meaning no problem in their genetics), then it has been derailed by trauma. Trauma seems to make the usual twists and turns of childhood development sharper and more difficult to negotiate without problems. It can also wreak havoc during adolescence, by which time aggression and antisocial behaviours may have become entrenched.

Adolescence is that unique time of life when the lessons learned, and failures in that regard, positive and negative relationships and role models, good and bad events, and self-image issues meld as personality begins to undergo condensation. Not to be unduly pessimistic, but the person is arguably less psychologically malleable, even at this youthful stage.

Abuse does not invariably lead to psychopathology, loss of enjoyment of life, violence or criminality. In fact, most abused or disadvantaged children do not demonstrate subsequent psychological difficulties. Abused children (and adolescents), however, may go on to develop one or more of a number of psychiatric problems including anxiety disorders (especially post-traumatic stress disorder), varying shades of depression, substance abuse, and self-abuse (especially in females).

As a rule of thumb, men act out their early life victimization against others, whereas women turn their anger and self-loathing inwards, through various forms of self-harm, or by repeatedly putting themselves in the position where they will again experience victimization. Unresolved issues of this kind and ensuing mental health problems can often lead to poor choices and bad judgements that cross legal boundaries.

It is not uncommon for sexually victimized males to re-enact their own childhood abuse in actions against others. This seems counterintuitive, but it happens regularly. Apart from corruptions in sexual and moral development brought about by victimization, males (psychologically, at an unconscious level) transform that sense of helplessness and powerlessness they experienced as victims into the power and strength their abusers used against them. The term of art for the phenomenon is "identification with the aggressor."

It's extremely difficult to put a figure on it, but many clinicians, lawyers and judges who work in this area accept that if childhood victimization were eradicated, the steady flow of accused in the criminal courts would thin out considerably.

Courts are asked to hear these things at the eleventh hour - when the harm has been done, and the sentence is about to be imposed. Courts often do understand and factor early life damage into a sentence, but that can only take an offender so far. Often the establishment of a counsel nexus eludes the court and may require the assistance of an expert. As always, there is no substitute for primary prevention of abuse and neglect, early intervention through enhanced social and educational surveillance, thorough assessment and the availability of services.

Abuse and criminality or violence are so inextricably related that the battle cry of "let's get tough on crime" should be recast as "let's get tough on identifying abuse, preventing it, and intervening early," all of which, of course, require awareness, understanding and resources. This is the chant of those who subscribe to the principles of therapeutic jurisprudence - to get at the root cause.

Physicians and therapists are trained to always ask a new patient about a history of abuse. This should also be on a criminal lawyer's agenda when he or she is meeting a client for the first time.

Hy Bloom is a forensic psychiatrist (and lawyer by training) in Toronto. He is also on the Board of Directors of the Child Psychotherapy Foundation of Canada, a not-for-profit organization that funds treatment for abused and neglected children.
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