Families, youth and delinquency: The state of knowledge, and family-based juvenile delinquency programs

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 ( http://www.childrensdefense.org/ ) 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  cengagebrain.com , 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 ( http://www.census.gov/ ). For more information about this topic, visit the Criminal Justice CourseMate at  cengagebrain.com , 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 http://www.childstats.gov/americaschildren/surveys2.asp?popup=true#cps  (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 http://www.childstats.gov/americaschildren/surveys2.asp?popup=true#cps  (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,  http://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/victims/qa02703.asp?qaDate=2009  (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  http://www.crckids.org  or go to the Criminal Justice CourseMate at  cengagebrain.com , 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 the willful and repeated harm inflicted through Internet social media sites such as Facebook, blogs, or microblogging applications such as Twitter. Like their real-world counterparts, cyberbullies are malicious aggressors who seek implicit or explicit pleasure or profit through the mistreatment of other individuals. Although power in traditional bullying might be physical (stature) or social (competency or popularity), online power may simply stem from Net proficiency.


Willful and repeated harm inflicted through Internet social media sites or electronic communication methods such as Twitter.

It is difficult to get an accurate count of the number of teens who have experienced cyberbullying. A recent study by Justin Patchin and Sameer Hinduja found that more than 20 percent of the youth they surveyed reported being the target of cyberbullying. 33  As  Figure 1.3  shows, adolescent girls are significantly more likely to have experienced cyberbullying in their lifetimes (26 percent versus 16 percent) than boys. Girls are also more likely to report cyberbullying others during their lifetime (21 percent versus 18 percent). The type of cyberbullying tends to differ by gender; girls are more likely to spread rumors while boys are more likely to post hurtful pictures. 34


figure 1.3: Cyberbullying by Gender

SOURCE: Justin Patchin and Sameer Hinduja, Cyberbullying Research Center,  http://cyberbullying.us/research.php  (accessed May 2013).


Cyberstalking refers to the use of the Internet, email, or other electronic communications devices to stalk another person. Some predatory adults pursue minors through online chat rooms, establish a relationship with the child, and later make contact. Today, Internet predators are more likely to meet and develop relationships with at-risk adolescents, and beguile underage teenagers, rather than use coercion and violence. 35

Others, as the Cyber Delinquency feature shows, engage in a misleading practice called catfishing: taking on a fictional identity to lure unsuspecting kids into romantic relationships.


Adolescents now have to worry that the compromising photos they send their boyfriends or girlfriends—a practice called sexting—can have terrible repercussions. In 2008, Jesse Logan, an 18-year-old Ohio high school girl, made the mistake of sending nude pictures of herself to her boyfriend. When they broke up, he sent them around to their schoolmates. As soon as the e-photos got into the hands of her classmates, they began harassing her, calling her names and destroying her reputation. Jesse soon became depressed and reclusive, afraid to go to school, and in July 2008 she hanged herself in her bedroom. 36

While the sexting phenomenon has garnered national attention, there is some question as to how often teens actually engage in the distribution of sexually compromising material. One recent survey of 1,560 Internet users ages 10 through 17 found that about 2.5 percent had appeared in or created nude or nearly nude pictures or videos and that 1 percent of these images contained sexually explicit nudity. Of the youth who participated in the survey, 7 percent said they had received nude or nearly nude images of others; few youth distributed these images. It is possible that sexting is not as common as previously believed or that it was a fad that is quickly fading. 37

Are Things Improving?

Though American youth do face many hazards, there are some bright spots on the horizon. Teenage birthrates nationwide have declined substantially during the past decade, with the sharpest declines among African American girls. In the same period, the teen abortion rate has also declined. These data indicate that more teens are using birth control and practicing safe sex.

Fewer children are being born with health risks today than in 1990. This probably means that fewer women are drinking or smoking during pregnancy and that fewer are receiving late or no prenatal care. In addition, since 1990 the number of children immunized against disease has increased.

Kids are taking less risks when they ride in cars:

·  From 1991 to 2011, the percentage of high school students who never or rarely wore a seatbelt declined from 26 to 8 percent

·  From 1991 to 2011, the percentage of students who rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol during the past 30 days declined from 40 to 24.

·  The percentage of high school students who had driven a car during the past 30 days when they had been drinking alcohol decreased from 17 in 1997 to 8 in 2011. 38

They are also drinking less alcohol. Since 1999, the percentage of high school students who drank alcohol during the past 30 days decreased from 50 percent to 39 percent and, since 1997, the percentage who reported binge drinking (having 5 or more drinks of alcohol in a row during the past 30 days) decreased from 33 percent to 22 percent. 39

More parents are reading to their children, and math achievement is rising in grades 4 through 12. And more kids are going to college: college enrollment is now about 21 million and is expected to continue setting new records for the next decade. 40  Almost 30 percent of the adult population in the United States now have college degrees.

CYBER delinquency: Catfishing

“Catfishing” refers to the practice of setting up a fictitious online profile, most often for the purpose of luring another into a fraudulent romantic relationship. According to The Urban Dictionary, a catfish is “someone who pretends to be someone they’re not using Facebook or other social media.” So, to “catfish someone” is to set up a fake social media profile with the goal of duping that person into falling for the false persona.

While catfishing has been around awhile, it became a topic of public interest when Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o was the apparent target of a catfish. Te’o developed an online relationship with someone he knew as Lennay Kekua. It is difficult to know how deep the relationship was, but he did refer to her as his girlfriend and mentioned repeatedly that he loved her. Te’o amassed a wide sympathy following when it was learned that his grandmother and his girlfriend (Kekua) died on the same day early in the 2012 football season. While his grandmother did in fact die on that day, his “girlfriend” did not—media investigations revealed that she had never existed in the first place. Kekua was in fact a fictitious online persona created by a friend of Te’o’s. In a statement to the press, Te’o maintained that he was a target: “To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating.”

In another case that got national attention, 13-year-old Megan Meier began an online relationship with a boy she knew as Josh Evans. For almost a month, Megan corresponded with this boy, exclusively online because he said he didn’t have a phone and was homeschooled. One day in October 2006, Megan received a message from Josh on her MySpace profile saying, “I don’t know if I want to be friends with you any longer because I hear you’re not nice to your friends.” This was followed by bulletins being posted through MySpace calling Megan “fat” and a “slut.” After seeing the messages, Megan became distraught and ran up to her room. A few minutes later, Megan’s mother Tina found her hanging in her bedroom closet. Though Tina rushed her daughter to the hospital, Megan died the next day.

Six weeks after their daughter’s death, the Meier family learned that the boy with whom Megan had been corresponding never existed. Josh Evans (and his online profile) was created by Lori Drew, a neighbor and the mother of one of Megan’s friends. She created the profile as a way to spy on what Megan was saying about her daughter. Drew was eventually acquitted in federal court for her role in Megan’s death.

Another, more extreme example, is the case of 18-year-old Anthony Stancl, who in 2009 impersonated two girls (“Kayla” and “Emily”) on Facebook. He befriended and formed online romantic relationships with a number of boys in his high school (again, while posing and interacting as these two girls). He then convinced at least 31 of those boys to send him nude pictures or videos of themselves. As if that weren’t bad enough, Stancl—still posing as a girl and still communicating through Facebook—tried to convince more than half to meet with a male friend and let him perform sexual acts on them. If they refused, “she” told them that the pictures and videos would be released for all to see. Seven boys actually submitted to this horrific request, and allowed Stancl to perform sex acts on them or they performed sex acts on him. He took numerous pictures of these encounters with his cell phone, and the police eventually found over 300 nude images of male teens on his computer. He was charged with five counts of child enticement, two counts of second-degree sexual assault of a child, two counts of third-degree sexual assault, possession of child pornography, and repeated sexual assault of the same child, and received a 15-year prison sentence.


The most famous case of “catfishing” involved Notre Dame’s star linebacker Manti Te’o, shown here speaking with Katie Couric during an interview. Te’o admitted that he briefly lied about his fictitious online girlfriend Lennay Kekua after discovering she didn’t exist, while maintaining that he had no part in creating the hoax. Te’o gained the sympathy of the nation when he was made to believe that his girlfriend had died of cancer.


Some might argue that catfishing is harmless Internet fun and that people should know better than to enter into any significant relationship with another person they only know digitally. Do such thoughts make it okay to use technology to mislead someone, and lead to a “victim-blaming” mentality? Should people who catfish others be held criminally liable?

SOURCE: Justin Patchin, “Catfishing as a Form of Cyberbullying,” Cyberbullying Research Center,  http://cyberbullying.us/blog/catfishing-as-a-form-of-cyberbullying.html  (accessed May 2013).

Although these are encouraging signs, the improvement of adolescent life continues to be a national goal.

The Study of Juvenile Delinquency

The problems of youth in modern society is a major national concern especially when they are linked to  juvenile delinquency , or criminal behavior committed by minors.

juvenile delinquency

Participation in illegal behavior by a minor who falls under a statutory age limit.

More than 1.1 million youths are now arrested each year for crimes ranging in seriousness from loitering to murder. 41  Though most juvenile law violations are minor, some young offenders are extremely dangerous and violent. About 800,000 youths belong to more than 20,000 gangs in the United States. Violent street gangs and groups can put fear into an entire city (see  Chapter 9  for more on gangs). Youths involved in multiple serious criminal acts—referred to as lifestyle, repeat, or  chronic delinquent offenders —are now recognized as a serious social problem. State juvenile authorities must deal with these offenders, along with responding to a range of other social problems, including child abuse and neglect, school crime and vandalism, family crises, and drug abuse. The cost to society of these high-rate offenders can be immense. In a series of studies, Mark Cohen, Alex Piquero, and Wesley Jennings examined the costs to society of various groups of juvenile offenders, including high-rate chronic offenders who kept on committing serious crimes as adults. 42  They found that the average cost for each of these offenders was over $1.5 million, and their cost to society increased as they grew older. The “worst of the worst” of these offenders, who committed 53 known crimes, cost society $1,696,000 by the time they reached their mid-20s. In all, the high-rate offenders they studied had an annual cost to society of over half a billion dollars.

chronic delinquent offenders (also known as chronic juvenile offenders, chronic delinquents, or chronic recidivists)

Youths who have been arrested four or more times during their minority and perpetuate a striking majority of serious criminal acts. This small group, known as the “chronic 6 percent,” is believed to engage in a significant portion of all delinquent behavior; these youths do not age out of crime but continue their criminal behavior into adulthood.

Given the diversity and gravity of these problems, there is an urgent need for strategies to combat such a complex social phenomenon as juvenile delinquency. But formulating effective strategies demands a solid understanding of delinquency’s causes and prevention. Is delinquency a function of psychological abnormality? A collective reaction by youths against destructive social conditions? The product of a disturbed home life and disrupted socialization? Does serious delinquent behavior occur only in large urban areas among lower-class youths? Or is it spread throughout the entire social structure? What impact do family life, substance abuse, school experiences, and peer relations have on youth and their law-violating behaviors? We know that most youthful law violators do not go on to become adult criminals (what is known as the  aging-out process ). Yet we do not know why some youths become chronic delinquents whose careers begin early and persist into their adulthood. Why does the onset of delinquency begin so early in some children? Why does the severity of their offenses escalate? What factors predict the  persistence , or continuation, of delinquency, and conversely, what are the factors associated with its desistance, or termination? Unless the factors that control the onset and termination of a delinquent career are studied in an orderly and scientific manner, developing effective prevention and control efforts will be difficult.

aging-out process (also known as desistance or spontaneous remission)

The tendency for youths to reduce the frequency of their offending behavior as they age; aging-out is thought to occur among all groups of offenders.


The process by which juvenile offenders persist in their delinquent careers rather than aging out of crime.

The study of delinquency also involves analysis of the law enforcement, court, and correctional agencies designed to treat youthful offenders who fall into the arms of the law—known collectively as the  juvenile justice system . How should police deal with minors who violate the law? What are the legal rights of children? For example, should minors who commit murder receive the death penalty? What kind of correctional programs are most effective with delinquent youths? How useful are educational, community, counseling, and vocational development programs? Is it true, as some critics claim, that most efforts to rehabilitate young offenders are doomed to failure? 43  Should we adopt a punishment or a treatment orientation to combat delinquency, or something in between?

juvenile justice system

The segment of the justice system, including law enforcement officers, the courts, and correctional agencies, designed to treat youthful offenders.


The study of juvenile delinquency involves a variety of social problems faced by adolescents. Sgt. Vincent Matranga, of the Sacramento City Unified School District, questions Lydia Ochoa, 15, and her boyfriend, Antonio, 17, about why the pair are not in school, in Sacramento, California. Police teamed up with school officials to start rounding up truants in an effort to cut crime as well as prevent kids from dropping out. After questioning the two juveniles, Matranga released Antonio to an adult who confirmed he was enrolled in a home study program. Lydia was taken to an attendance center at Luther Burbank High School where a social worker worked with her to prevent her from becoming one of the estimated 150,000 California students who leave school each year without a diploma. The study of delinquency involves such issues as devising programs to reduce the dropout rate and determining what effect dropping out of school has on delinquency.

In sum, the scientific study of delinquency requires understanding the nature, extent, and cause of youthful law violations and the methods devised for their control. We also need to study important environmental and social issues associated with delinquent behavior, including substance abuse, child abuse and neglect, education, and peer relations. This text investigates these aspects of juvenile delinquency along with the efforts being made to treat problem youths and prevent the spread of delinquent behavior. Our study begins with a look back to the development of the concept of childhood and how children were first identified as a unique group with its own special needs and behaviors.

The Development of Childhood

The treatment of children as a distinct social group with special needs and behavior is, in historical terms, a relatively new concept. It is only for the past 350 years or so that any mechanism existed to care for even the most needy children, including those left orphaned and destitute. How did this concept of concern for children develop?

Childhood in the Middle Ages

In Europe, during the Middle Ages (roughly 500–1500 ce), the concept of childhood as we know it today did not exist. In the  paternalistic family  of the time, the father was the final authority on all family matters and exercised complete control over the social, economic, and physical well-being of his wife and children. 44  Children who did not obey were subject to severe physical punishment, even death.

paternalistic family

A family style wherein the father is the final authority on all family matters and exercises complete control over his wife and children.

The Lower Classes

For peasant children, the passage into adulthood was abrupt. As soon as they were physically capable, children of all classes were expected to engage in adult roles. Among the working classes, males engaged in farming and/or learning a skilled trade, such as masonry or metal-working; females aided in food preparation or household maintenance. 45  Some peasant youths went into domestic or agricultural service on the estate of a powerful landowner or into trades or crafts, perhaps as a blacksmith or farrier (horseshoer).

This view of medieval childhood was shaped by Philippe Aries, whose influential book Centuries of Childhood is considered a classic of historical scholarship. Aries argued that most young people were apprenticed, became agricultural or factory workers, and generally entered adult society at a very early age. 46  According to Aries, high infant mortality rates kept parents emotionally detached from their children. Paintings of the time depict children as mini-adults who were sent off to work as soon as they were capable. Western culture did not have a sense of childhood as a distinct period of life until the very late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Though Aries’s view that children in the Middle Ages were treated as “miniature adults” has become the standard view, in a more recent book, historian Nicholas Orme puts forth evidence that medieval children may have been valued by their parents and did experience a prolonged period of childhood. In his Medieval Children, Orme finds that the medieval mother began to care for her children even before their delivery. Royal ladies borrowed relics of the Virgin Mary from the church to protect their unborn children, while poorer women used jasper stones or drawings of the cross, which were placed across their stomachs to ensure a healthy and uneventful birth. Parents associated their children’s birthdays with a saint’s feast day. Medieval children devised songs, rhymes, and games. Some simple games made use of cherry pits or hazelnuts, but children also had toys, which included dolls and even mechanical toys made for royalty. 47


As soon as they were physically capable, children of the Middle Ages were expected to engage in adult roles. Young girls worked as maids and housekeepers and at such tasks as food preparation, clothes washing, and household maintenance. Boys worked on farms and performed such tasks as blacksmith or farrier (horseshoer).

Children of the Nobility

Though their lives were quite different, children of the affluent, landholding classes also assumed adult roles at an early age. Girls born into aristocratic families were educated at home and married in their early teens. A few were taught to read, write, and do sufficient mathematics to handle household accounts in addition to typical female duties such as supervising servants and ensuring the food supply of the manor.

At age 7 or 8, boys born to landholding families were either sent to a monastery or cathedral school to be trained for lives in the church or selected to be a member of the warrior class and sent to serve a term as a squire—an apprentice and assistant to an experienced knight. At age 21, young men of the knightly classes completed their term as squire, received their own knighthood, and returned home to live with their parents. Most remained single because it was widely believed there should be only one married couple residing in a manor or castle. To pass the time and maintain their fighting edge, many young knights entered the tournament circuit, engaging in melees and jousts to win fame and fortune. Upon the death of their fathers, young nobles assumed their inherited titles, married, and began their own families.

The customs and practices of the time helped shape the lives of children and, in some instances, greatly amplified their hardships and suffering.  Primogeniture  required that the oldest surviving male child inherit family lands and titles. He could then distribute them as he saw fit to younger siblings. There was no absolute requirement, however, that portions of the estate be distributed equally; many youths who received no lands were forced to enter religious orders, become soldiers, or seek wealthy patrons. Primogeniture often caused intense family rivalry that led to blood feuds and tragedy.


During the Middle Ages, the right of firstborn sons to inherit lands and titles, leaving their brothers the option of a military or religious career.


The dower system mandated that a woman’s family bestow money, land, or other wealth (called a dowry) on a potential husband or his family in exchange for his marriage to her. In return, the young woman received a promise of financial assistance, called a jointure, from the groom’s family. Jointure provided a lifetime income if a wife outlived her mate. The dower system had a significant impact on the role of women in medieval society and consequently on the role of children. Within this system, a father or male guardian had the final say in his daughter’s choice of marital partner, as he could threaten to withhold her dowry. Some women were denied access to marriage simply because of their position in the family.

A father with many daughters and few sons might find himself financially unable to obtain suitable marriages for them. Consequently, the youngest girls in many families were forced either to enter convents or stay at home, with few prospects for marriage and family.

The dower system had far-reaching effects on the position of women in society, forcing them into the role of second-class citizens dependent upon their fathers, brothers, and guardians. It established a pattern in which females who did not conform to what males considered to be acceptable standards of feminine behavior could receive harsh sanctions; it established a sexual double standard that in part still exists today.


The harshness of medieval life influenced childrearing practices during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. For instance, newborns were almost immediately handed over to wet nurses, who fed and cared for them during the first two years of their life. These women often lived away from the family so that parents had little contact with their children. Even the wealthiest families employed wet nurses, because it was considered demeaning for a noblewoman to nurse. Wrapping a newborn entirely in bandages, or  swaddling , was a common practice. The bandages prevented any movement and enabled the wet nurse to manage the child easily. This practice was thought to protect the child, but it most likely contributed to high infant mortality rates because the child could not be kept clean.


The practice during the Middle Ages of completely wrapping newborns in long bandage-like cloths in order to restrict their movements and make them easier to manage.

Discipline was severe during this period. Young children of all classes, both peasant and wealthy, were subjected to stringent rules and regulations. They were beaten severely for any sign of disobedience or ill temper. Many children of this time would be considered abused by today’s standards. The relationship between parent and child was remote. Children were expected to enter the world of adults and to undertake responsibilities early in their lives, sharing in the work of siblings and parents. Children thought to be suffering from disease or retardation were often abandoned to churches, orphanages, or foundling homes. 48

The roots of the impersonal relationship between parent and child can be traced to high mortality rates, which made sentimental and affectionate relationships risky. Parents were reluctant to invest emotional effort in relationships that could so easily be terminated by violence, accidents, or disease. Many believed that children must be toughened to ensure their survival in a hostile world. Close family relationships were viewed as detrimental to this process. Also, because the oldest male child was viewed as the essential player in a family’s well-being, younger male and female siblings were considered economic and social liabilities.

Development of Concern for Children

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a number of developments in England heralded the march toward the recognition of children’s rights. Some of these events eventually affected the juvenile legal system as it emerged in America. They include (a) changes in family style and child care, (b) the English Poor Laws, (c) the apprenticeship movement, and (d) the role of the chancery court. 49

Changes in Family Structure

Family structure and the role of children began to change after the Middle Ages. Extended families, which were created over centuries, gave way to the nuclear family structure with which we are familiar today. It became more common for marriage to be based on love and mutual attraction between men and women rather than on parental consent and paternal dominance. The changing concept of marriage—from an economic arrangement to an emotional commitment—also began to influence the way children were treated within the family structure. Though parents still rigidly disciplined their children, they formed closer parental ties and developed greater concern for their offspring’s well-being.

To provide more control over children, grammar and boarding schools were established and began to flourish in many large cities during this time. 50  Children studied grammar, Latin, law, and logic, often beginning at a young age. Teachers in these institutions regularly ruled by fear, and flogging was their main method of discipline. Students were beaten for academic mistakes as well as moral lapses. Such brutal treatment fell on both the rich and the poor throughout all levels of educational life, including universities. This treatment abated in Europe with the rise of the Enlightenment, but it remained in full force in Great Britain until late in the nineteenth century. Although this brutal approach to children may be difficult to understand now, the child in that society was a second-class citizen.

Toward the close of the eighteenth century, the work of such philosophers as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Locke launched a new age for childhood and the family. 51  Their vision produced a period known as the Enlightenment, which stressed a humanistic view of life, freedom, family, reason, and law. The ideal person was sympathetic to others and receptive to new ideas. These new beliefs influenced both the structure and lifestyle of the family. The father’s authority was tempered, discipline in the home became more relaxed, and the expression of love and affection became more commonplace among family members. Upper- and middle-class families began to devote attention to childrearing, and the status of children was advanced.

As a result of these changes, in the nineteenth century children began to emerge as a readily distinguishable group with independent needs and interests. Parents often took greater interest in their upbringing. In addition, serious questions arose over the treatment of children in school. Public outcries led to a decrease in excessive physical discipline. Restrictions were placed on the use of the whip, and in some schools, the imposition of academic assignments or the loss of privileges replaced corporal punishment. Despite such reforms, many children still led harsh lives. Girls were still undereducated, punishment was still primarily physical, and schools continued to mistreat children.

Poor Laws

Government action to care for needy children can be traced to the  Poor Laws  of Britain. As early as 1535, England passed statutes allowing for the appointment of overseers to place destitute or neglected children as servants in the homes of the affluent. 52  The Poor Laws forced children to serve during their minority in the care of families who trained them in agricultural, trade, or domestic services. The Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1601 were a model for dealing with poor children for more than 200 years. These laws created a system of church wardens and overseers who, with the consent of justices of the peace, identified vagrant, delinquent, and neglected children and took measures to put them to work. Often this meant placing them in poorhouses or workhouses, or apprenticing them to masters.

Poor Laws

English statutes that allowed the courts to appoint overseers over destitute and neglected children, allowing placement of these children as servants in the homes of the affluent.

The Apprenticeship Movement

Under the apprenticeship system, children were placed in the care of adults who trained them to discharge various duties and obtain skills. Voluntary apprentices were bound out by parents or guardians who wished to secure training for their children. Involuntary apprentices were compelled by the authorities to serve until they were 21 or older. The master-apprentice relationship was similar to the parent-child relationship in that the master had complete responsibility for and authority over the apprentice. If an apprentice was unruly, a complaint could be made and the apprentice could be punished. Incarcerated apprentices were often placed in rooms or workshops apart from other prisoners and were generally treated differently from those charged with a criminal offense. Even at this early stage, the conviction was growing that the criminal law and its enforcement should be applied differently to children.

Chancery Court

After the fifteenth century, a system of  chancery courts  became a significant arm of the British legal system. They were originally established as “courts of equity” to handle matters falling outside traditional legal actions. These early courts were based on the traditional English system in which a chancellor acted as the “king’s conscience” and had the ability to modify the application of legal rules and provide relief considering the circumstances of individual cases. The courts were not concerned with technical legal issues; rather, they focused on rendering decisions or orders that were fair or equitable. With respect to children, the chancery courts dealt with issues of guardianship of children who were orphaned, their property and inheritance rights, and the appointment of guardians to protect them until they reached the age of majority and could care for themselves. For example, if a wealthy father died before his heir’s majority, or if there were some dispute as to the identity (or legitimacy) of his heir, the crown might ask the case to be decided by the chancery court in an effort to ensure that inheritance rights were protected (and taxes collected!).

chancery courts

Court proceedings created in fifteenth-century England to oversee the lives of highborn minors who were orphaned or otherwise could not care for themselves.

Chancery court decision making rested on the proposition that children and other incompetents were under the protective control of the king; thus, the Latin phrase  parens patriae  was used, referring to the role of the king as the father of his country. The concept was first used by English kings to establish their right to intervene in the lives of the children of their vassals—children whose position and property were of direct concern to the monarch. 53  The concept of parens patriae became the theoretical basis for the protective jurisdiction of the chancery courts acting as part of the crown’s power. As time passed, the monarchy used parens patriae more and more to justify its intervention in the lives of families and children by its interest in their general welfare. 54

parens patriae

Power of the state to act on behalf of the child and provide care and protection equivalent to that of a parent.

The chancery courts dealt with the property and custody problems of the wealthier classes. They did not have jurisdiction over children charged with criminal conduct. Juveniles who violated the law were handled within the framework of the regular criminal court system. Nonetheless, the concept of parens patriae grew to refer primarily to the responsibility of the courts and the state to act in the best interests of the child.

Childhood in America

While England was using its chancery courts and Poor Laws to care for children in need, the American colonies were developing similar concepts. The colonies were a haven for poor and unfortunate people looking for religious and economic opportunities denied them in England and Europe. Along with early settlers, many children came not as citizens but as indentured servants, apprentices, or agricultural workers. They were recruited from the various English workhouses, orphanages, prisons, and asylums that housed vagrant and delinquent youths during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. 55

At the same time, the colonies themselves produced illegitimate, neglected, abandoned, and delinquent children. The colonies’ initial response to caring for such unfortunate children was to adopt court and Poor Laws systems similar to those in England. Involuntary apprenticeship, indenture, and binding out of children became integral parts of colonization in America. For example, Poor Law legislation requiring poor and dependent children to serve apprenticeships was passed in Virginia in 1646 and in Massachusetts and Connecticut in 1673. 56

The master in colonial America acted as a surrogate parent, and in certain instances, apprentices would actually become part of the nuclear family structure. If they disobeyed their masters, apprentices were punished by local tribunals. If masters abused apprentices, courts would make them pay damages, return the children to the parents, or find new guardians. Maryland and Virginia developed an orphan’s court that supervised the treatment of youths placed with guardians and ensured that they were not mistreated or taken advantage of by their masters. These courts did not supervise children living with their natural parents, leaving intact the parents’ right to care for their children. 57

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, as the agrarian economy began to be replaced by industry, the apprenticeship system gave way to the factory system. Yet the problems of how to deal effectively with growing numbers of dependent youths increased. Early American settlers believed that hard work, strict discipline, and rigorous education were the only reliable means to salvation. A child’s life was marked by work alongside parents, some schooling, prayer, more work, and further study. Work in the factories, however, often taxed young laborers by placing demands on them that they were too young to endure. To alleviate a rapidly developing problem, the Factory Act of the early nineteenth century limited the hours children were permitted to work and the age at which they could begin to work. It also prescribed a minimum amount of schooling to be provided by factory owners. 58  This and related statutes were often violated, and conditions of work and school remained troublesome issues well into the twentieth century. Nevertheless, the statutes were a step in the direction of reform.

Controlling Children

In America, as in England, moral discipline was rigidly enforced. “Stubborn child” laws were passed that required children to obey their parents. 59  It was not uncommon in the colonies for children who were disobedient or disrespectful to their families to be whipped or otherwise physically chastised. Children were often required to attend public whippings and executions because these events were thought to be important forms of moral instruction. Parents often referred their children to published works and writings on behavior and discipline and expected them to follow their precepts carefully. Because community and church leaders frowned on harsh punishments, child protection laws were passed as early as 1639 (in New Haven, Connecticut). Nonetheless, these laws were generally symbolic and rarely enforced. They expressed the community’s commitment to God to oppose sin; offenders who abused their children usually received lenient sentences. 60

Although most colonies adopted a protectionist stance, few cases of child abuse were actually brought before the courts. There are several explanations for this neglect. The absence of child abuse cases may reflect the nature of life in what were extremely religious households. Children were productive laborers and respected as such by their parents. In addition, large families provided many siblings and kinfolk who could care for children and relieve stress-producing burdens on parents. 61  Another view is that though many children were harshly punished in early American families, the acceptable limits of discipline were so high that few parents were charged with assault. Any punishment that fell short of maiming or permanently harming a child was considered within the sphere of parental rights. 62


Under the apprenticeship system, children were placed in the care of adults who trained them to discharge various duties and obtain different skills. The young boy shown in this illustration is serving as an apprentice to a blacksmith. The system was brought over to colonial America in the seventeenth century.

The Concept of Delinquency

Considering the rough treatment handed out to children who misbehaved at home or at school, it should come as no surprise that children who actually broke the law and committed serious criminal acts were dealt with harshly. Before the twentieth century, little distinction was made between adult and juvenile offenders. Although judges considered the age of an offender when deciding punishments, both adults and children were often eligible for the same forms of punishment—prison, corporal punishment, and even the death penalty. In fact, children were treated with extreme cruelty at home, at school, and by the law. 

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