‘Offending doesn't happen in a vacuum’: The backgrounds and experiences of children under the age of 14 years who offend

Published date01 June 2022
Date01 June 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Offending doesnt happen
in a vacuum: The backgrounds
and experiences of children
under the age of 14 years
who offend
Jerome Reil
School of Psychology, The University of Auckland, Auckland, New
Ian Lambie
School of Psychology, The University of Auckland, Auckland, New
Ruth Allen
Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, School of Community Health,
The University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand
Relative to those who f‌irst offend in adolescence, younger children who offend are at
increased risk of engaging in serious, persistent, and violent offending. In addition, these chil-
dren are at risk of a range of adverse psychosocial outcomes across the lifespan. Early inter-
vention with children at risk of offending is therefore critical to support children to thrive and
reduce offending and victimisation rates. This study sought to explore the backgrounds and
experiences of children who offend prior to the age of 14 years to shed light on the develop-
ment of child offending and assist early intervention efforts. Interviews with family members
(with lived experience of interacting with the child welfare and child offending system) and
frontline child welfare and judicial professionals (who directly engage with children who
offend) (n=33) were conducted. Their experiences show that children who offend have
clear, signif‌icant, and unaddressed child welfare concerns, including growing up in poverty
and experiencing abuse, which cumulatively impacts on childrens normative development
Corresponding author:
Jerome Reil, School of Psychology, The University of Auckland, 23 Symonds St, Auckland Central, Auckland 1010,
New Zealand.
Email: jrei096@aucklanduni.ac.nz
Journal of Criminology
2022, Vol. 55(2) 202220
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/26338076221087459
and can eventually culminate in offending. Participants called for urgent action to address the
sociostructural concerns that underlie child welfare concerns and provide prompt and effect-
ive assistance to families in need to support children to thrive and prevent future victimisation.
Child offending, children who offend, child offenders, child welfare, youth justice, care and
Date received: 26 November 2021; accepted: 14 February 2022
Although youth justice research, policy, and clinical practice have predominantly focused on
adolescent offending (Loeber & Farrington, 2000; Slot et al., 2016), offending by younger chil-
dren warrants particular concern as children who offend prior to the age of 13 years are 23
times more likely to engage in persistent, violent, and chronic offending relative to those start-
ing to offend in adolescence (Loeber & Farrington, 2000; Moff‌itt et al., 2002; Reil et al., 2020).
This study def‌ines children who have offended(CWHO) as those who have done so under the
age of 14 years.
CWHO in Aotearoa New Zealand (NZ) are vulnerable to developing along the
following pathway: child welfare involvement, engagement with the Family Court and youth
justice system in response to serious child and youth offending, and entry into the adult crim-
inal justice system if offending persists (Ministry of Justice, 2013; Social Services Committee,
2012). Given that incarceration is a frequent outcome of this trajectory in many countries, it has
been referred to as the prison pipeline(Lambie, 2018a, p. 11). Prevention and early, effective
intervention are therefore critical to prevent these children from following this pathway and
reducing the risk of other adverse outcomes (e.g., unemployment, poor physical and mental
health) (Fox et al., 2015). However, relatively little is known about children who offend in
NZ, particularly those who engage in serious and persistent offending (Ministry of Social
Development, 2016). Increased understanding of child offending, including the backgrounds
and experiences of these children and their families, may assist the development of improved
prevention and early intervention efforts.
The terminology used in discussing these children is important, as Reil et al. (2020) explain:
We use the phrase children who have offended(CWHO), which acknowledges the child f‌irst and
highlights offending as only one of many behaviours. Labels like child offender/delinquentcan
suggest a permanent state as deviant, troublesome, and personally to blame for actions often
grounded in victimization and sociostructural concerns outside their control. (p. 1)
Risk and protective factors
The origin of persistent antisocial behaviour and aggression is multi-determined (Derzon,
2010). While genetic, psychophysiological, and biological factors have also been associated
with the development of behavioural problems and offending in children (Neumann et al.,
2016), environmental factors are of particular interest to researchers and practitioners, consid-
ering that psychosocial interventions rely on factors that are amenable to change (Murray &
Reil et al. 203

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