National Crime Prevention Centre

SAVIGNAC, J. (2009). Families, youth and delinquency: The state of knowledge, and family-based juvenile delinquency programs (Research Report 2009-1). Ottawa: National Crime Prevention Centre, Public Safety Canada.

Family interactions are most important during early childhood, but they can have long-lasting effects. In early adolescence, relationships with peers take on greater importance. Family structure and family functioning are two general categories under which family effects on delinquency.

Increased risk of delinquency experienced among children of broken homes is related to the family conflict prior to the divorce or separation, rather than to family breakup itself (Rutter et al., 1998).

· 1 Become familiar with the problems of youth in American culture

· 2 Distinguish between ego identity and role diffusion

· 3 Discuss the specific issues facing American youth

· 4 Understand the concept of being “at risk” and discuss why so many kids take risks

· 5 Be familiar with the recent social improvements enjoyed by American youth

· 6 Discuss why the study of delinquency is so important and what this study entails

· 7 Describe the life of children during feudal times

· 8 Discuss the treatment of children in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

· 9 Discuss childhood in the American colonies

· 10 Know about the child savers and the creation of delinquency

· 11 Discuss the elements of juvenile delinquency today

· 12 Know what is meant by the term status offender

chapter features

cyber Delinquency: Catfishing

Case profile: Aaliyah’s Story

Evidence-Based Juvenile Justice—intervention: Family Key Programs

KEAIRA BROWN WAS JUST 13 YEARS OLD when she was charged with murder and became the youngest person in Wyandotte County, Kansas, ever to be tried as an adult. Her family life was close but troubled. Her mother, Cheryl Brown, had three other children, two enrolled in local colleges. Keaira was involved in after-school activities, including playing the violin. But when her mom went to prison on a drug charge, things began to spiral downhill for Keaira, and when she was only 10 she attempted suicide. On July 23, 2008, at about 4:00 PM, Keaira was supposed to be at a summer program at the Boys and Girls Club in Kansas City. Instead, she was involved in the carjacking of Scott Sappington, Jr., a junior at Sumner Academy, who had just dropped his siblings off at their grandmother’s house. When he returned to his car, neighbors heard him yell, “Hey, hey,” then there was a struggle inside the car, and he was shot in the head. An investigation led to a 6-year-old who told police that a young girl told a group of children to get rid of her bloody clothes. Police distributed pictures of the bloody clothes to the media, and soon after, the clothes were traced back to Keaira Brown.

Prosecutors thought the murder was a result of a carjacking that went wrong, while Keaira’s family claimed she was an innocent pawn for area gang members who thought she would not be prosecuted because of her age. They were incorrect. In April, almost a year after the crime, a Wyandotte County judge ruled that Keaira should face trial as an adult. On November 9, 2010, Keaira Brown was found guilty of first-degree murder and attempted aggravated robbery. She will have to serve 20 years before being eligible for parole.

Stories such as that of Keaira Brown are certainly not unique. While the Supreme Court ruled in  Roper v. Simmons  that juveniles cannot be sentenced to the death penalty, it is quite legal to incarcerate them in adult prison for life if they commit a capital crime, as long as the judge takes age into account before sentencing takes place ( Miller v. Alabama ). 1  So Keaira, who was 13 years old at the time she committed her crime, may spend the rest of her life behind bars.

Roper v. Simmons

A juvenile under 18 years of age who commits a capital crime cannot face the death penalty.

Miller v. Alabama

In this case, the Supreme Court held that mandatory life sentences, without the possibility of parole, are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders.

The problems of youth in contemporary society can be staggering. Because of trouble and conflict occurring in their families, schools, and communities, adolescents experience stress, confusion, and depression. There are approximately 75 million children in the United States, a number that is projected to increase to about 85 million by 2025. 2  Since the mid-1960s, children have been decreasing as a proportion of the total US population, so today 24 percent of the population are 18 and under, down from a 1964 peak of 36 percent at the end of the so-called baby boom. Children are projected to remain a fairly stable percentage, about 23 percent, of the total population through 2050. Though the number of children is projected to remain stable, racial and ethnic diversity is growing, so that the population is projected to become even more diverse in the decades to come. In 2023, less than half of all children are projected to be white, non-Hispanic; by 2050, 38 percent of children are projected to be white, non-Hispanic, down from 55 percent today.

The mission of the Children’s Defense Fund ( ) is to “leave no child behind” and to ensure every child “a healthy start, a head start, a fair start, a safe start, and a moral start in life,” as well as a successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. The CDF tries to provide a strong, effective voice for kids who cannot vote, lobby, or speak for themselves. For more information about this topic, visit the Criminal Justice CourseMate at , then access the “Web Links” for this chapter.

During the baby boom (1946–1964), the number of children grew rapidly (see  Exhibit 1.1 ). Now as the baby boomers enter their senior years, their needs for support and medical care will increase. At the same time, a significant number of kids who are poor and at risk for delinquency and antisocial behavior will need both private and public assistance and aid. While the number of poor kids and the elderly will be rising, the 30- to 50-year-old population who will be expected to care and pay for these groups will constitute a much smaller share of the population.

exhibit 1.1: Six Generations of Americans

The Greatest Generation: Born after World War I and raised during the Depression, they overcame hardships, fought in World War II, and went on to build America into the world’s greatest superpower. They were willing to put off personal gain for the common good.

Baby Boomers: Born between the end of World War II and the Kennedy-Johnson years, and now approaching retirement age, “boomers” are considered a generation who have benefited the most from the American Dream and postwar leadership. Their parents, who grew up during the Great Depression, made sure their children had the best of everything. Baby boomers benefited from affordable college and post-graduate education, relatively low housing costs, and plentiful job opportunities. Though they experienced some significant setbacks, such as the war in Viet Nam, they were a privileged generation that has been accused of being self-absorbed and materialistic.

Generation X: Born between 1963 and 1980 and now approaching 50, Gen-Xers are often accused of being unfocused and uncommitted—the “why me?” generation. Coming of age between 1980 and 1990, when divorce was rampant and greed was good, they are not attached to careers or families. They lived through the 1990s, a time with significant social problems, including teen suicide, homelessness, the AIDS epidemic, a downsizing of the workforce, and overseas conflict. Generation X is described as pessimistic, suspicious, and frustrated slackers who wear grunge clothing while listening to alternative music after they move back home with their parents. They do not want to change the world, just make their way in it and through it without complications.

Generation Y: Born between 1981 and 1994, Gen Y kids were deeply influenced by the 9/11 attacks and as a result are more patriotic than their older peers. They were weaned on reality TV and are sometimes called the MTV generation. Compared to their elders, Gen Y kids are incredibly sophisticated technologically. Gen Y members live in a world that is much more racially and ethnically diverse than their parents, and most are willing to accept diversity. Their worldview is aided by the rapid expansion in cable TV channels, satellite radio, the Internet, e-zines, etc. They may have lived in families with either a single caretaker or two working parents. Members of Generation Y are often accused of being self-centered, irresponsible, and having a lack of understanding of how the work world functions.

Generation Z: Born between 1995 and 2009, they are the first generation to have grown up in a world dominated by the Internet and instant communication; iPads, group video games, texting, and tweeting are their milieu. Will this next generation have the same opportunities as their grandparents in a global economy in which the United States is competing with other powerful nations for dominance?

Generation Alpha: Born after 2012, it’s just too early to tell.

The Adolescent Dilemma

As they go through their tumultuous teenage years, the problems of American society and the daily stress of modern life have a significant effect on our nation’s youth. Adolescence is unquestionably a time of transition. During this period, the self, or basic personality, is still undergoing a metamorphosis and is vulnerable to a host of external determinants as well as internal physiological changes. Many youths become extremely vulnerable to emotional turmoil and experience anxiety, humiliation, and mood swings. Adolescents also undergo a period of biological development that proceeds at a far faster pace than at any other time in their lives except infancy. Over a period of a few years, their height, weight, and sexual characteristics change dramatically. The average age at which girls reach puberty today is 12.5 years; 150 years ago, girls matured sexually at age 16. But although they may become biologically mature and capable of having children as early as 14, many youngsters remain emotionally and intellectually immature. By the time they reach 15, a significant number of teenagers are approaching adulthood but are unable to adequately meet the requirements and responsibilities of the workplace, family, and neighborhood. Many suffer from health problems, are educational under achievers, and are already skeptical about their ability to enter the American mainstream.

In later adolescence (ages 16 to 18), youths may experience a life crisis that famed psychologist Erik Erikson labeled the struggle between  ego identity  and  role diffusion . Ego identity is formed when youths develop a full sense of the self, combining how they see themselves and how they fit in with others. Role diffusion occurs when they experience personal uncertainty, spread themselves too thin, and place themselves at the mercy of people who promise to give them a sense of identity they cannot mold for themselves. 3  Psychologists also find that late adolescence is a period dominated by the yearning for independence from parental domination. 4  Given this explosive mixture of biological change and desire for autonomy, it isn’t surprising that the teenage years are a time of rebelliousness and conflict with authority at home, at school, and in the community.

ego identity

According to Erik Erikson, ego identity is formed when youths develop a full sense of the self, combining how they see themselves and how they fit in with others.

role diffusion

According to Erik Erikson, role diffusion occurs when people spread themselves too thin, experience personal uncertainty, and place themselves at the mercy of people who promise to give them a sense of identity they cannot develop for themselves.

Such feelings can overwhelm young people and lead them to consider suicide as a “solution.” Though most kids do not take their own lives, millions are left troubled and disturbed and at risk for delinquency, drug use, and other forms of antisocial behavior. Acting out or externalized behavior that begins in early adolescence may then persist into adulthood. 5  In the United States the teen suicide rate remains unacceptably high: suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people ages 15 to 24, averaging about 4,500 per year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the top three methods used in youth suicides are firearms (46 percent), suffocation (37 percent), and poisoning (8 percent). 6

Adolescent Problems

The population trends take on greater meaning when the special problems of youth are considered. It may not be surprising to some that this latest generation of adolescents has been described as cynical and preoccupied with material acquisitions. By age 18, American youths have spent more time in front of a television set than in the classroom; each year they may see up to 1,000 rapes, murders, and assaults on TV. Today’s teens are watching racy TV shows involving humans, from Teen Mom to Californication, and nonhumans (e.g., True Blood). They listen to rap music, such as the classic “Candy Shop,” by 50 Cent, and “I Hit It First” by Ray J, whose sexually explicit lyrics routinely describe substance abuse and promiscuity. How will this exposure affect them? Should we be concerned? Maybe we should. Research shows that kids who listen to music with a sexual content are much more likely to engage in precocious sex than adolescents whose musical tastes run to Katy Perry or Adele. 7

Troubles in the home, the school, and the neighborhood, coupled with health and developmental hazards, have placed a significant portion of American youth  at risk . Youths considered at risk are those dabbling in various forms of dangerous conduct such as drug abuse, alcohol use, and precocious sexuality. They are living in families that, because of economic, health, or social problems, are unable to provide adequate care and discipline. 8

at-risk youth

Young people who are extremely vulnerable to the negative consequences of school failure, substance abuse, and early sexuality.

Data on population characteristics can be found at the website of the US Census Bureau ( ). For more information about this topic, visit the Criminal Justice CourseMate at , then access the “Web Links” for this chapter.

Adolescent Poverty

According to the US Census Bureau, 48 million people, or one in seven residents, live in poverty in the United States, the highest rate since 1994. And because the government defines poverty as $23,000 a year for a family of four, a great many more Americans live just above the poverty line, the so-called working poor, struggling to make ends meet. 9  Today, real incomes are falling, and poverty in the United States is more prevalent now than in the late 1960s and early 1970s—and has escalated rapidly since 2000. While poverty problems have risen for nearly every age, gender, and race-ethnic group, the increases in poverty have been most severe among the nation’s youngest families (adults under 30), especially those with one or more children present in the home. Since 2007, the poverty rate has risen by 8 percent among young families with one or more children in the home, and now rests at about 37 percent; in 1967, it stood at only 14 percent. Among young families with children residing in the home, four of every nine are poor or near poor, and close to two out of three are low income. 10

Working hard and playing by the rules is not enough to lift families out of poverty: even if parents work full-time at the federal minimum wage, the family still lives in poverty. Consequently, about 6 million children live in extreme poverty, which means less than $10,000 for a family of four; the younger the child, the more likely they are to live in extreme poverty. 11

Which kids live in poverty? As  Figure 1.1  shows, kids living in a single-parent, female-headed household are significantly more likely to suffer poverty than those in two-parent families.

figure 1.1: Percentage of Children Ages 0–17 Living in Poverty by Family Structure

SOURCE: US Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplements  (accessed May 2013).

Child poverty can have long-lasting negative effects on the children’s cognitive achievement, educational attainment, nutrition, physical and mental health, and social behavior. Educational achievement scores between children in affluent and low-income families have been widening over the years, and the incomes and wealth of families have become increasingly important determinants of adolescents’ high school graduation, college attendance, and college persistence and graduation. The chances of an adolescent from a poor family with weak academic skills obtaining a bachelor degree by his or her mid-20s is now close to zero. 12

Health and Mortality Problems

Receiving adequate health care is another significant concern for American youth. There are some troubling signs. Recent national estimates indicate that only about 18 percent of adolescents meet current physical activity recommendations of one hour of physical activity a day and only about 22 percent eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day. 13

Kids with health problems may only be helped if they have insurance. And while most kids now have health care coverage of some sort, about 10 percent or 7.5 million youth do not. 14  As might be expected, children who are not healthy, especially those who live in lower-income families and children from ethnic and minority backgrounds, are subject to illness and early mortality. Recently, the infant mortality rate rose for the first time in more than 40 years, and is now 7 per 1,000 births. The United States currently ranks 25th in the world among industrialized nations in preventing infant mortality, and the percent of children born at low birth weight has increased. 15  It remains to be seen whether the new national health care policy, created by the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 (aka Obamacare) will eventually reduce or eliminate inadequate health care for America’s children.

While infant mortality remains a problem, so do violent adolescent deaths. More than 3,000 children and teens are killed by firearms each year, the equivalent of 120 public school classrooms of 25 students each. Another 16,000 children and teens suffer nonfatal firearm injuries. Today, more preschoolers are killed by firearms than law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. 16

Racial Inequality

Despite years of effort to reduce racial inequality, it still tragically exists. Minority kids are much more likely than white, non-Hispanic children to experience poverty; proportionately, Hispanic and black children are about three times as likely to be poor than their white peers. 17  As  Figure 1.2  shows, African American median income is significantly below that of white and Asian families.

figure 1.2: Real Median Household Income by Race and Hispanic Origin

SOURCE: US Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, 1968 to 2012, Annual Social and Economic Supplements  (accessed May 2013).

Inequality can also be found in other elements of social life. Educational problems are more likely to hit minority kids the hardest. According to the nonprofit Children’s Defense Fund, African American children are half as likely as white children to be placed in a gifted and talented class and more than one and a half times as likely to be placed in a class for students with emotional disturbances. They are also more likely to face disciplinary problems, including being two and a half times as likely to be held back or retained in school, almost three times as likely to be suspended from school, and more than four times as likely to be expelled. 18

Ironically, despite suffering these social and economic handicaps, minority youth are less likely to take their own life than white youth. However, as  Exhibit 1.2  shows, they are more likely to be victims of lethal violence.

exhibit 1.2: Race, Ethnicity, Suicide, and Violence

Note: Between 1990 and 2009, suicide was more prevalent than homicide for non-Hispanic white juveniles, while the reverse was true for Hispanic juveniles and non-Hispanic black juveniles.

·  At each age between 12 and 24, suicide was more common than murder for non-Hispanic whites, in sharp contrast to patterns for Hispanics and non-Hispanic blacks.

·  For every 10 white homicide victims ages 7 to 17, there were 25 suicide victims (a ratio of 10:25); the corresponding ratio was 10:2 for black juveniles and 10:4 for Hispanic juveniles.

·  Between 1990 and 2009, the juvenile suicide rate for white non-Hispanic youth (i.e., suicides per million for persons ages 7 to 17 in this race/ethnicity group) was 27.

·  The suicide rates were substantially lower for Hispanic (17), black non-Hispanic (16), and Asian non-Hispanic (15) juveniles ages 7 to 17.

·  In contrast, the suicide rate for American Indian juveniles (63) was more than double the white non-Hispanic rate and more than triple the rates for the other racial/ethnic groups.

SOURCE: OJJDP Statistical Briefing Book, March 5, 2012,  (accessed May 2013).

Self-Image Problems

Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to stress caused by a poor self-image. According to recent surveys by the American Psychological Association, citizens of all ages are likely to live stress-filled lives, but children and adults alike who are obese or overweight are more likely to feel stressed out; overweight children are more likely to report that their parents were often or always stressed. When asked, one-third (31 percent) of American children report being very or slightly overweight. These kids are more likely to report they worry a lot or a great deal about things in their lives than children who are normal weight (31 percent versus 14 percent). Overweight children are also significantly more likely than normal-weight children to report they worry about the way they look or about their weight (36 percent versus 11 percent). Children, regardless of weight or age, say they can tell that their parents are stressed when they argue and complain, which many children say makes them feel sad and worried. 19

Family Problems

Divorce strikes about half of all new marriages, and many intact families sacrifice time with each other to afford more affluent lifestyles. Today, about 70 percent of children under age 18 live with two married parents. Kids who live with one parent only are much more likely to experience poverty than those living in two-parent families. Because of family problems, children are being polarized into two distinct economic groups: those in affluent, two-earner, married-couple households and those in poor, single-parent households. 20

Formed in 1985, the Children’s Rights Council (CRC) is a national nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC, that works to assure children meaningful and continuing contact with both their parents and extended family regardless of the parents’ marital status. For more information about this topic, visit their website at  or go to the Criminal Justice CourseMate at , then access the “Web Links” for this chapter.

Substandard Living Conditions

Millions of children now live in substandard housing—high-rise, multiple-family dwellings—which can have a negative influence on their long-term psychological health. 21  Adolescents living in deteriorated urban areas are prevented from having productive and happy lives. Many die from random bullets and drive-by shootings. Some are homeless and living on the street, where they are at risk of drug addiction and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including AIDS. Today about one-third of US households with children have one or more of the following three housing problems: physically inadequate housing, crowded housing, or housing that costs more than 30 percent of the household income. 22  Despite the fact that the minimum wage has increased to more than $6.50 per hour, the poor can barely afford to live in even the lowest-cost neighborhoods of metro areas such as Chicago, New York, and Washington, DC. 23

Inadequate Educational Opportunity

Education shapes the personal growth and life chances of children. Early educational experiences of young children, such as being read to daily, encourage the development of essential skills and prepare children for success in school. Later aspects of academic performance, such as mastering academic subjects, completing high school, and enrolling in college, provide opportunities for further education and future employment. Youths who are neither enrolled in school nor working are a measure of the proportion of young people at risk of limiting their future prospects. 24  Although all young people face stress in the education system, the risks are greatest for the poor, members of racial and ethnic minorities, and recent immigrants. By the time they reach the fourth grade, students in poorer public schools have lower achievement scores in mathematics than those in more affluent districts. 25  According to the watchdog group Children’s Defense Fund:

·  About 70 percent of fourth-graders in our public schools cannot read at grade level.

·  Minority children are most seriously affected: almost 90 percent of black fourth-graders, 80 percent of Hispanic fourth-graders, and 80 percent of American Indian/Alaska native fourth-graders are not reading at grade level. 26

The problems faced by kids who drop out of school do not end in adolescence. 27  Adults 25 years of age and older without a high school diploma earn 30 percent less than those who have earned a diploma. High school graduation is the single most effective preventive strategy against adult poverty.

At home, poor children receive less academic support from their harried parents. Take for instance having parents who read to their children at home, a key to future academic success. Although about half of all children ages 3 to 5 who are not yet in kindergarten are read to daily by a family member, the likelihood of having heard a story at home is stratified by class. About two-thirds of children in families with incomes at or above 200 percent of the poverty level are read to daily; in contrast, less than half of children whose family falls 200 percent below the poverty level are read to at home. 28

Problems in Cyberspace

Kids today are forced to deal with problems and issues that their parents could not even dream about. While the Internet and other technological advances have opened a new world of information gathering and sharing, they have also brought a basketful of new problems ranging from sexting to cyberstalking.


Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old Massachusetts girl, hanged herself in a stairwell at her home after enduring months of torment by her fellow students at South Hadley High School. Prince, who had immigrated from Ireland, was taunted in the school’s hallways and bombarded with vulgar insults by a pack of kids led by the ex-girlfriend of a boy she had briefly dated. As she studied in the library on the last day of her life, she was openly hounded and threatened physically while other students and a teacher looked on and did nothing. In the aftermath of her death, prosecutors accused two boys of statutory rape and four girls with violating Prince’s civil rights and criminal harassment. Ironically, most of these students were still in school, and some continued to post nasty remarks on Prince’s memorial Facebook page after her death. 29

Experts define bullying among children as repeated, negative acts committed by one or more children against another. 30  These negative acts may be physical or verbal in nature—for example, hitting or kicking, teasing or taunting—or they may involve indirect actions such as manipulating friendships or purposely excluding other children from activities.

While in the past bullies were found in the school yard, they can now use the Internet to harass their victims through emails or instant messages. Physical distance is no longer a barrier to the frequency and depth of harm doled out by a bully to his or her victim. 31  Obscene, insulting, and slanderous messages can be posted to social media sites or sent directly to the victim via cell phones; bullying has now morphed from the physical to the virtual. 32

Cyberbullying  is …