The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children Annual statistical report 2014

7. Early onset of crime and delinquency among Australian children

Walter Forrest and Ben Edwards, Australian Institute of Family Studies1

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7.1 Introduction

Early involvement in crime and delinquency (i.e., in late childhood and/or early adolescence) is a significant risk factor for a range of problems throughout the life course. The origins of much antisocial and criminal behaviour in adolescence and adulthood can be traced back to early childhood (Vassallo, Smart, Sanson, Dussuyer, & Victoria, 2002). As teenagers, early-onset offenders are at greater risk of school failure, drug and alcohol abuse, unsafe sexual behaviour, unwanted pregnancy and dangerous driving compared to late-onset offenders. In addition, early-onset offenders are thought to play an important role in promoting antisocial behaviour among their same-age peers in the middle and later stages of adolescence by providing examples for others to imitate and encouraging others within their peer groups to offend (Moffitt, 1993). Early-onset offending is also an important risk factor for life-course-persistent offending (Farrington, Lambert, & West, 1998; Loeber & Farrington, 1998; Loeber & Farrington, 2000; Moffitt, 1993) and associated problems, including unemployment, financial difficulties, substance dependence, mental and physical illness, troubled interpersonal relationships, criminal victimisation, and family violence (e.g., Moffitt, Caspi, Harrington, & Milne, 2002; Piquero, Daigle, Gibson, Piquero, & Tibbetts, 2007).

Early-onset offenders are widely believed to differ from adolescent-onset offenders both in terms of the underlying causes of their offending and their long-term patterns of behaviour (Moffitt, 1993; Patterson, DeBarysche, & Ramsay, 1989; Taylor, Iacono, & McGue, 2000). For example, early-onset criminal behaviour may be influenced more strongly by personality or temperament and by early environmental conditions (e.g., harsh and erratic parenting in response to early behavioural problems) than by subsequent changes in the family, school or peer environment (Aguilar, Sroufe, Egeland, & Carlson, 2000; Moffitt, 1993; Moffitt et al., 2002). These differences and the time at which they emerge are often used to justify distinct prevention strategies, especially an emphasis on early intervention (e.g., Webster-Stratton & Taylor, 2001). These strategies carry specific challenges, including how to accurately recognise children most at risk and how to modify their behaviour once they have been identified.

Most children who appear to be on an early-onset and life-course-persistent pathway, however, do not develop into young offenders (Loeber, Farrington, & Petechuk, 2003). Despite exhibiting behaviours that place them at risk of an early-onset pathway, these children manage to avoid crime, or delay and minimise their involvement. Results from the Australian Temperament Project, a longitudinal study of a representative community sample of Victorian children, show that developmental pathways of antisocial behaviours tend to change over late childhood and early adolescence, so intervention may still be effective during that period (Smart et al., 2003). This study reported that some children who exhibited antisocial behaviours in early childhood developed better management and control of their emotions by late adolescence. Understanding how and why these children change course could provide important insights into how to develop and target programs to prevent life-course-persistent offending.

In this chapter, we examine the early onset of crime and antisocial behaviour among a representative sample of Australian children (aged 12-13 years) and the factors that are associated with early onset, using data from the K cohort of the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC). A number of personal and social characteristics - including parenting practices and the temperament of the child - have been found to influence children's problem behaviours, such as violence (Smart et al., 2003, 2005; Vassallo et al., 2002). However, most studies have focused on children's antisocial behaviours in late adolescence or early adulthood (e.g., 17-20 years). To date, few studies have examined the extent of early-onset crime and delinquency among a nationally representative sample of Australian children. One study of Australian children, all born in a single hospital in Brisbane between 1981 and 1983, suggests that children's aggression and attention problems at 5 years of age are associated with antisocial behaviour at age 14 (Bor, McGee, & Fagan, 2004).

A key focus of the chapter is to identify children who are at risk of early-onset crime and delinquency based on their childhood behaviour and circumstances, but do not become involved in crime and delinquency in late childhood and early adolescence. The results in this chapter can be used to inform targeted programs to reduce early offending and potentially protect children, their families and their communities from the consequences of ongoing criminal and delinquent behaviour. To that end, the chapter aims to answer the following research questions:

  • What percentage of Australian children are involved in crime and delinquency in late childhood and early adolescence?
  • What factors place children at risk of involvement in crime and delinquency in late childhood and early adolescence?
  • What factors can help differentiate at-risk children who do not become involved in crime and delinquency at this early stage from those who do?

7.2 Data and method

We examined early involvement in crime and delinquency among those K cohort children who participated in Wave 5 of LSAC - the first point at which the children (aged 12-13 years) were asked to report on their criminal or delinquent behaviour (n = 3,581). For children for whom we also had complete information on the risk and protective factors of interest at Wave 1 (n = 2,732) and Wave 4 (n = 2,410), we then investigated the factors that placed them at risk of involvement in crime and delinquency at age 12-13. We used information from Wave 1 to test whether there were any risk or protective factors in preschool children (aged 4-5 years) that were associated with crime or delinquency at Wave 5. We also used Wave 4 data, as this is the latest point of influence of risk or protective factors that precede early-onset crime or delinquency at Wave 5.

Involvement in crime and delinquency

Involvement in crime and delinquency was measured using self-reports. A short form of the Moffitt and Silva (1988) Self-Report of Delinquency scale was used to measure adolescents' involvement in antisocial behaviour. At 12-13 years, children in the K cohort were asked how many times in the last 12 months they had:

  • got into physical fights in public;
  • carried a weapon like a knife, gun or piece of wood;
  • used force or threats to get money or things from someone;
  • gone around with a group of three or more kids damaging property or getting into fights;
  • stolen something from a shop;
  • stolen money or other things from another person;
  • stolen something out of a parked car;
  • broken into a house, flat or vehicle;
  • taken a vehicle (e.g., car, motorbike) for a ride or drive without permission;
  • drawn graffiti in public places;
  • purposely damaged or destroyed others' property;
  • damaged a parked car (e.g., broken an aerial, slashed tyres, scratched paint); and
  • started a fire in a place where you should not burn anything.

The children were also asked how many times they had:

  • run away from home and stayed away overnight or longer;
  • skipped school for a whole day;
  • been suspended or expelled from school; and
  • been caught by police for something you had done.

Response categories recorded the number of times that respondents had committed each act, ranging from zero (not at all) to five or more times.

The first four items above provide information about the extent to which children in the K cohort had been involved in a range of violent crimes (e.g., "used force or threats to get money or things from someone") and the next nine items concern property offences (e.g., "stolen something from a shop"). The remaining four items provide information about children's involvement in minor status offences (e.g., "skipped school for a whole day") and whether their behaviour had attracted the attention of authorities, including the police (e.g., "been suspended or expelled from school").

7.3 Results

How common is early crime and delinquency?

In this section, we describe the extent of self-reported involvement in crime and delinquency among the LSAC K cohort children. Given that LSAC is based on a nationally representative sample of children, our results provide the first ever description of the prevalence of early-onset crime and delinquency among the broader population of Australian 12-13 year-olds.

Figures 7.1 and 7.2 show the percentages of children who reported committing each of the four violent crimes and nine property offences at least once in the 12 months prior to their interview. Figure 7.3 illustrates the percentages of children who engaged in either of the status offences and who were either suspended/expelled from school or apprehended by the police for their behaviour. Given that boys and girls differ dramatically in their involvement in crime and delinquency (e.g., Steffensmeier & Allan, 1996), we report the prevalence of these behaviours separately for boys and girls.

Violence

Of all the self-reported crime and delinquency items included in the survey, fighting was the most common (Figure 7.1). Boys were substantially more likely than girls to have been involved in fights; in fact, of all the criminal and delinquent acts recorded in LSAC, the gender difference was largest for fighting. Only 8% of girls reported getting into fights in public, while almost one in four boys (24%) were involved in at least one fight in the year preceding the survey.

Figure 7.1: Percentage of 12-13 year old boys and girls involved in violence in the last 12 months, K cohort, Wave 5

Percentage of 12–13 year old boys and girls involved in violence in the last 12 months, K cohort, Wave 5, as described in accompanying text.

Notes: The "⌶" bars represent 95% confidence intervals. "⌶" bars that do not overlap indicate there is a statistically significant difference between boys and girls. Sample size: n = 3,581.

In comparison to fighting, other forms of violent behaviour were less common:

  • 9% of boys and 4% of girls reported carrying a weapon;
  • 5% of boys and 3% of girls admitted to being involved in delinquent groups;
  • 4% of boys and 2% of girls had used force or threats to get things from someone.

Whether in public or private, fighting is a potentially serious form of antisocial behaviour that risks injury to everyone involved. Given that almost one in ten boys reported carrying weapons, some of the fights that the LSAC children referred to may have been reasonably serious.

As an indicator of the potential for serious and chronic offending in later life, however, fighting may not be as useful as some of the other forms of crime and delinquency featured in Figure 7.1. First, the question about fighting in LSAC potentially covers a broad spectrum of behaviours that range from fairly trivial altercations involving physical contact (e.g., pushing and shoving) to serious acts of violence in which the aim is to cause injury and harm (e.g., punching, kicking, or striking with a weapon). Even if some of the fights described by the children involved weapons, most may have been minor scraps or scuffles. Second, in comparison to other forms of crime and delinquency, fighting is fairly common among the LSAC boys. This implies that a large percentage of the boys who had been in fights had not engaged in any of the other types of criminal or delinquent behaviours. In other words, many more children have problems resolving their interpersonal differences peacefully than are showing signs of more serious generalised antisocial conduct across a range of different behaviours. Findings from the Australian Temperament Project also showed that fighting in early adolescence is widespread, and more common than other forms of crime or delinquency, involving just over half of boys and about 15% of girls aged 13-14 years in the mid-1980s (Vassallo et al., 2002).

Property offences

Of the property offences, Figure 7.2 shows that damaging or destroying other people's property was the most common property crime (9% of boys and 6% of girls), followed by stealing from a shop, and stealing from another person. Other offences were less common. For example, only 3% of boys and 2% of girls had stolen something from a parked car; and 5% of boys and 3% of girls had taken a vehicle for a ride without permission. While more boys than girls committed each of these offences, the differences were only statistically significant for starting a fire, stealing from a shop, and purposely damaging property.

Figure 7.2: Percentage of 12-13 year old boys and girls involved in property offences in the last 12 months, K cohort, Wave 5

Percentage of 12–13 year old boys and girls involved in property offences in the last 12 months, K cohort, Wave 5, as described in accompanying text.

Notes: The "⌶" bars represent 95% confidence intervals. "⌶" bars that do not overlap indicate there is a statistically significant difference between boys and girls. Sample size: n = 3,581.

Status offences and contact with authorities

The second most prevalent type of delinquency (after fighting) was truancy. Fifteen per cent of boys and 11% of girls admitted to having "skipped school for a whole day" at least once in the previous 12 months. Figure 7.3 also indicates that 6% of boys and 4% of girls had run away from home overnight or longer in the year preceding the interview.

Figure 7.3: Percentage of 12-13 year old boys and girls involved in status offences in the last 12 months, K cohort, Wave 5

Percentage of 12–13 year old boys and girls involved in status offences in the last 12 months, K cohort, Wave 5, as described in accompanying text.

Notes: The "⌶" bars represent 95% confidence intervals. "⌶" bars that do not overlap indicate there is a statistically significant difference between boys and girls. Sample size: n = 3,581.

Interestingly, 13% of boys and 6% of girls had been suspended or expelled from school, less than those who admitted to skipping school, especially among girls.

In terms of engagement with police, 5% of boys and 2% of girls had been caught by the police for something they had done. Although this might indicate their involvement in more serious offences, that these children came into contact with the police does not necessarily mean that they were arrested, charged, appeared in court, or were convicted. In fact, only a minority of these cases are likely to have proceeded to the child being charged (e.g., Smart et al., 2005).

Which children are at risk of early involvement in crime or delinquency?

To help explain these patterns, we examined the links between 34 different risk and protective factors and the children's involvement in crime or delinquency at age 12-13. Rather than examining each type of behaviour separately, we created a single indicator of involvement in crime or delinquency for each child based on whether he or she had committed any of the 13 violent crime or property offences at least once in the year preceding the interview. This method of measuring involvement in crime or delinquency is consistent with convention and reflects the tendency for offenders to engage in a variety of delinquent acts as opposed to "specialising" in particular types of antisocial behaviour (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990).

We excluded the status offences and the measures of official reactions to children's behaviour (e.g., being suspended or expelled) because they are likely to reflect much more than a child's propensity for problem behaviours. For example, being suspended or expelled may depend on the school disciplinary environment as much as it depends on the behaviour of the child involved.

The aim of this analysis is to identify factors that affect the chances of children engaging in early-onset crime or delinquency and to pinpoint the children who are most likely to engage in crime or delinquency in early adolescence, based on their earlier life circumstances and patterns of behaviour. We investigated links between crime or delinquency, and compiled a comprehensive list of risk and protective factors implicated in numerous studies conducted over the last 30 years (e.g., Farrington & West, 1993; Loeber & Dishion, 1983; Loeber & Farrington, 2000; Patterson, Forgatch, Yoerger, & Stoolmiller, 1998; Tremblay, Pihl, Vitaro, & Dobkin, 1994). These cover a range of broad categories, including:

  • child demographic characteristics (e.g., gender, ethnicity);
  • parental characteristics (e.g., mother's age, maternal psychological problems);
  • family and household characteristics (e.g., socio-economic position of family);
  • pregnancy and birth complications (e.g., mother smoked during pregnancy);
  • child psychosocial characteristics (e.g., difficulty temperament, early disruptive behaviour); and
  • parenting styles (e.g., harsh parenting, absence of parental warmth).

Details of the 34 variables, and how they were measured, are provided in Table 7.1.

Table 7.1: Risk and protective factors for children engaging in crime or delinquency at 4-5 years and 10-11 years
Variable Categories a Description Age of child
Notes: a Those variables that are cate gorised into three groups (lower, medium, higher) are divided based on percentile scores, with the bottom third classified as lower, the middle third as medium, and the top third as higher. Allocations to each subgroup are therefore relative to each other rather than being absolute measures. b The Consistent Parenting scale originally consisted of five items. For the purpose of this chapter, we treated the last three items of this scale as an independent measure of "responsiveness to punishment". Factor analyses were conducted for these two measures at each wave. Cronbach's alpha coefficients indicated high internal consistencies for both measures (e.g., alpha was 0.89 for consistent parenting and 0.92 for responsiveness to punishment at Wave 1).
Child demographic characteristics
Child gender 1 = male
2 = female (ref.)
4-5 years
Child Indigenous status 0 = non-Indigenous (ref.)
1 = Indigenous
Is study child of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin? 4-5 years
Child language spoken at home 0 = English
1 = non-English
Does study child speak a language other than English at home? 4-5 years
Parental characteristics
Maternal age 1 = younger (bottom 33%) (ref.)
2 = medium (middle 33%)
3 = older (top 33%)
Age of mother at time of interview. 4-5 years
10-11 years
Parental education 0 = below Bachelor degree
1 = Bachelor degree or higher (ref.)
Highest level of parental education (both Parent 1 and Parent 2). 4-5 years
10-11 years
Family type 0 = two parents (ref.)
1 = single parent
Based on Parent 2's presence in the LSAC household at Wave 1 and Wave 4. 4-5 years
10-11 years
Maternal psychological distress 1 = low (0-7) (ref.)
2 = moderate (8-12)
3 = high (13-24)
Kessler 6 (K6) scale, a six-item scale measuring psychological distress (e.g., "In the past 4 weeks about how often did you feel so sad that nothing could cheer you up?"). Scores rescaled from 0-24 (Hilton, Scuffham, Sheridan, Cleary, & Whiteford, 2008) and respondents classified as lower, moderate or higher. Higher indicates a mental disorder is very likely. 4-5 years
10-11 years
Maternal problem alcohol consumption 0 = no (ref.)
1 = yes
Single item. Whether Parent 1 had engaged in problematic alcohol use, defined as heavy daily alcohol consumption (> 2 standard drinks for women) or frequent binge drinking (5+ standard drinks in a sitting for women). 4-5 years
10-11 years
Family and household characteristics
No. of siblings 0 = none (ref.)
1 = one
2 = two
3 = three or more
Number of siblings of the study child in household. 4-5 years
10-11 years
Family socio-economic position 1 = lowest 25% (ref.)
2 = middle 50%
3 = highest 25%
Z-score for socio-economic position among all families. 4-5 years
10-11 years
Financial stress 0 = no (ref.)
1 = yes
Whether Parent 1 experienced one or more instances of financial stress in the last 12 months, as indicated by six items (e.g., parent has not been able to pay gas, electricity or telephone bills on time due to a shortage of money). 4-5 years
10-11 years
Unemployed 0 = no (ref.)
1 = yes
Whether both parents were unemployed (in two-parent families) or Parent 1 unemployed (in sole-parent families). 4-5 years
10-11 years
Neighbourhood disadvantage 1 = lower (bottom 33%)
2 = medium (middle 33%)
3 = higher (top 33%) (ref.)
Defined according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Socio-Economic Indexes for Areas (SEIFA), which includes the Index of Relative Socio-Economic Disadvantage (SIRD). 4-5 years
10-11 years
Region of residence 0 = urban (ref.)
1 = rural
Using the Australian Statistical Geography Standard (ASGS; Edition 2011: Section of State), defined as urban (major and other urban areas with population > 1,000) or regional (bounded locality and rural balance). 4-5 years
10-11 years
Legal problems 0 = no (ref.)
1 = yes
Whether Parent 1 or Parent 2 had problems with the police or had a court appearance in the last 12 months. 4-5 years
10-11 years
Parental injury or assault 0 = no (ref.)
1 = yes
Whether Parent 1 or Parent 2 had suffered a serious illness, injury or assault in the last 12 months. 4-5 years
10-11 years
Pregnancy and birth complications
Used alcohol during pregnancy 1 = no (ref.)
2 = occasionally
3 = most days
Whether mother consumed alcohol during the pregnancy. 4-5 years
Smoked during pregnancy 1 = no (ref.)
2 = occasionally
3 = most days
Whether mother smoked cigarettes during pregnancy. 4-5 years
High blood pressure in pregnancy 0 = no (ref.)
1 = yes
Whether mother had high blood pressure during pregnancy, requiring admission to hospital or medication. 4-5 years
Postnatal depression 0 = no (ref.)
1 = yes
Whether mother suffered from postnatal depression after the birth of the child. 4-5 years
Birth weight of study child 1 = lower (bottom 33%) (ref.)
2 = medium (middle 33%)
3 = higher (top 33%)
Birth weight percentile based on US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) growth charts. 4-5 years
Child psychosocial characteristics
Intelligence 1 = lower (bottom 33%) (ref.)
2 = medium (middle 33%)
3 = higher (top 33%)
Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC-IV). Standardised score based on number of correct items and provided norms. 4-5 years
10-11 years
Temperament - Reactivity 1 = lower (bottom 33%) (ref.)
2 = medium (middle 33%)
3 = higher (top 33%)
Short Temperament Scale for Children (STSC) Reactive subscale. Average of four items (e.g., when angry, child yells or snaps at others). 4-5 years
10-11 years
Temperament - Persistence 1 = lower (bottom 33%) (ref.)
2 = medium (middle 33%)
3 = higher (top 33%)
STSC Persistence subscale. Average of four items (e.g., child likes to complete one task or activity before going onto the next). 4-5 years
10-11 years
Temperament - Sociability 1 = lower (bottom 33%) (ref.)
2 = medium (middle 33%)
3 = higher (top 33%)
STSC Sociability subscale. Average of four items (e.g., child is outgoing with adult strangers outside the home). Scores of the first two items were reverse scored. High scores indicate high levels of sociability temperament. 4-5 years
10-11 years
Attention problems 1 = lower (bottom 33%) (ref.)
2 = medium (middle 33%)
3 = high (top 33%)
Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) Hyperactivity subscale. Average of five items (e.g., child easily distracted, concentration wanders). 4-5 years
10-11 years
Conduct problems 1 = lower (bottom 33%) (ref.)
2 = medium (middle 33%)
3 = higher (top 33%)
Abridged SDQ Conduct Problems subscale. Average of three items (e.g., child often fights with other children or bullies them). 4-5 years
10-11 years
Emotional problems 1 = lower (bottom 33%) (ref.)
2 = medium (middle 33%)
3 = higher (top 33%)
SDQ Emotional Problems subscale. Average of five items (e.g., child is often unhappy, downhearted or tearful). 4-5 years
10-11 years
Prosocial orientation 1 = lower (bottom 33%) (ref.)
2 = medium (middle 33%)
3 = higher (top 33%)
SDQ Prosocial subscale. Average of five items (e.g., child is considerate of other people's feelings). 4-5 years
10-11 years
Peer problems 1 = lower (bottom 33%) (ref.)
2 = medium (middle 33%)
3 = higher (top 33%)
SDQ Peer Problems subscale. Average of five items (e.g., picked on or bullied by other children) 4-5 years
10-11 years
Responsiveness to punishment b 1 = lower (bottom 33%) (ref.)
2 = medium (middle 33%)
3 = higher (top 33%)
Average of the last three items of the Consistent Parenting Scale: "How often is this child able to get out of a punishment when he/she really sets his/her mind to it?", "How often does this child get away with things that you feel should have been punished?"; and "When you discipline this child, how often does he/she ignore the punishment?". 4-5 years
10-11 years
Parenting styles
Harsh parenting 1 = lower (bottom 33%) (ref.)
2 = medium (middle 33%)
3 = higher (top 33%)
Average of four items of the Angry Parenting Scale (e.g., "How often are you angry when you punish this child?"). 4-5 years
10-11 years
Parental warmth 1 = lower (bottom 33%) (ref.)
2 = medium (middle 33%)
3 = higher (top 33%)
Average of six items (e.g., "How often do you express affection by hugging, kissing and holding this child?") 4-5 years
10-11 years
Consistent parenting b 1 = lower (bottom 33%) (ref.)
2 = medium (middle 33%)
3 = higher (top 33%)
Average of the first two items of the Consistent Parenting Scale: "When you give this child an instruction or make a request to do something, how often do you make sure that he/she does it?"; and "If you tell this child he/she will get punished if he/she doesn't stop doing something, but he/she keeps doing it, how often will you punish him/her?". 4-5 years
10-11 years

Although differences between early-onset offenders and other children can emerge in early childhood, long before they commit their first criminal or delinquent offences, the factors that show the strongest association with such behaviours are likely to be those measured around the time the offences occurred.

To help determine how early in the life course we could identify children who were at risk of crime or delinquency, we sought to measure each risk and protective factor based on information collected at two points in time: first, when the children were 4-5 years of age (Wave 1); and second, at 10-11 years (Wave 4).2 We focused on 4-5 years because that was the earliest possible point at which information on children in the K cohort could be collected. By contrast, we selected 10-11 years because that was the age of the children at the time of the last survey conducted before the measurement of criminal and delinquent behaviour at 12-13 years (Wave 5). As a result, all risk and protective factors were observed prior to the measurement of the children's involvement in crime or delinquency.

We estimated the differences between the percentage of children engaged in crime or delinquency by each risk and protective factor in a series of logistic regressions,3 and we report these results as "unadjusted differences" in the tables following. We then included all 35 risk and protective factors in a statistical model that adjusted for all factors simultaneously in one logistic regression model. The results of these analyses, which we refer to as "adjusted differences", are reported alongside the unadjusted differences. They indicate differences in the percentages of children engaging in criminal or delinquent acts after accounting for other factors. Thus, the unadjusted differences tell us whether the percentage of children engaging in crime or delinquency is higher for some groups than others (e.g., higher for boys than girls), while the adjusted estimates indicate whether that difference is independent of other factors and hence attributable to the factor in question.

Child demographic characteristics

Table 7.2 reports the adjusted and unadjusted differences in the percentages of children engaging in crime or delinquency at 12-13 years, by key demographic characteristics at 4-5 and 10-11 years.

Table 7.2: Percentage point differences in crime or delinquency at 12-13 years, by child demographic characteristics at 4-5 years and 10-11 years
Child demographic characteristics 4-5 years (Wave 1) 10-11 years (Wave 4)
Unadjusted Adjusted Unadjusted Adjusted
Notes: The number of children participating at each wave of LSAC varies. Therefore, the samples used to estimate the influence of risk and protective factors at 4-5 and 10-11 years also differ slightly. This means that some of the differences observed between the apparent effects of the same risk and protective factors measured at different points in time could be due to changes in the size or composition of the estimation samples. Adjusted analyses control for child demographic, maternal, and family and household characteristics; pregnancy and birth complications; and parenting style. Sample sizes - Wave 5: n = 3,581; Wave 1: n = 2,732; Wave 4: n = 2,410. Statistically significant differences are noted: * p < .05; ** p < .01; *** p < .001.
Child gender (ref. = female)
Male 16.56 *** 15.79 *** 16.93 *** 13.85 ***
Child Indigenous status (ref. = non-Indigenous)
Indigenous 21.45 * 14.51 27.65 ** 21.78 *
Child language spoken at home (ref. = English)
Non-English -3.70 -0.50 -0.28 2.68

Child gender emerged as a significant risk factor in our analyses. Boys were substantially more likely to be involved in crime or delinquency by 12-13 years than were girls. Relative to girls, the unadjusted proportion of boys who engaged in crime or delinquency was almost 17 percentage points higher. These gender differences were not attributable to other risk and protective factors. Even after adjusting for other characteristics already apparent at 4-5 years, the prevalence of crime or delinquency among boys was still 15.8 percentage points greater than girls. When adjusting for characteristics observed at 10-11 years, the proportion was 13.9 percentage points higher than for girls.

Indigenous children were more likely to report engaging in crime or delinquency than non-Indigenous children (21.5 and 27.7 percentage points higher in Waves 1 and 4 respectively). At 4-5 years, once all other characteristics were taken into account, the seemingly higher rates of crime or delinquency found among Indigenous children of that age were not statistically significant. By age 10-11 though, after adjusting for characteristics of the children, Indigenous children were significantly more likely to be engaged in crime or delinquency than non-Indigenous children (21.8 percentage points higher). This could mean that risk and protective factors emergent in early childhood better account for the seemingly higher rates of crime or delinquency among Indigenous children than characteristics measured in late childhood (10-11 years). Alternatively, this could result from changes in the composition of the estimation samples.

Previous studies have reported higher rates of crime or delinquency among children who spoke a language other than English (LOTE) at home. For example, Brindis, Wolfe, McCarter, Ball, and Starbuck-Morales (1995) found that immigrant and native-born Latino children in the United States engaged in a greater number of risk-taking behaviours than native non-Hispanic children. However, we did not observe a significant difference in LSAC children's criminal or delinquent behaviours at 12-13 years between children from English-speaking families and children from non-English-speaking families.

Parental characteristics

We also examined the potential influence of the characteristics of the children's parents, and their mothers in particular (Table 7.3).4 The children of mothers in the medium and older age groups were at lower risk of engaging in crime or delinquency (4.7 and 5.6 percentage points respectively at 4-5 years) than younger mothers. The percentage of children engaging in crime or delinquency within families in which either parent had a university-level education was smaller also - 7.2 and 6.0 percentage points lower at 4-5 and 10-11 years respectively - than among other families.5 Once other risk and protective characteristics were taken into account, however, both maternal age and the parental education failed to differentiate children engaging in crime or delinquency at 12-13 years from their less antisocial counterparts. Lower rates of delinquency observed among children in these families, therefore, are likely due to other risk and protective factors.

Table 7.3: Percentage point differences in crime or delinquency at 12-13 years, by parental characteristics at 4-5 years and 10-11 years
Parental characteristics 4-5 years (Wave 1) 10-11 years (Wave 4)
Unadjusted Adjusted Unadjusted Adjusted
Notes: Multivariate analyses adjusted for child demographic, maternal, and family and household characteristics; pregnancy and birth complications; and parenting style. Sample sizes - Wave 5: n = 3,581; Wave 1: n = 2,732; Wave 4: n = 2,410. Statistically significant differences are noted: * p < .05; ** p < .01; *** p < .001.
Maternal age (ref. = younger: bottom 33%)
Medium (middle 33%) -4.67 * -0.07 -3.77 1.30
Older (top 33%) -5.56 * -0.30 -4.42 0.03
Parental education (ref. = Bachelor degree or higher)
Below Bachelor degree 7.21 *** 0.39 5.98 ** -0.92
Family type (ref. = two parents)
Single parent 14.71 *** 6.67 13.10 *** 6.11
Maternal psychological distress (ref. = low: 0-7)
Moderate (8-12) 4.52 -1.19 3.13 -4.59
High (13-24) 18.68 ** 3.54 22.69 ** 10.82
Maternal problem alcohol consumption (ref. = no)
Yes 4.57 1.19 8.13 ** 6.21 *

Compared to other children, those who were living with unpartnered mothers at 4-5 and 10-11 years were more likely to engage in crime or delinquency at age 12-13 (by 14.7 and 13.1 percentage points respectively). Once all other characteristics at 4-5 and 10-11 years were taken into account, however, the differences by mother's partnership status were no longer significant.

Relative to children of mothers with low psychological distress, those whose mothers had high levels of psychological distress at 4-5 and 10-11 years were at greater risk for crime or delinquency at 12-13 years (by 18.7 and 22.7 percentage points respectively). Once again, however, after all other characteristics were adjusted for in the statistical model, there were no longer any statistically significant differences in crime or delinquency by maternal psychological distress.

Children who at 10-11 years had mothers who were engaging in problem drinking were more likely (by 8.1 percentage points) to be engaging in crime or delinquency at 12-13 years than those whose mothers were not problem drinkers, even after adjusting for other characteristics (6.2 percentage points more likely).

Family and household characteristics

Six of the eight family or household characteristics examined were associated with subsequent delinquency (see Table 7.4).

Table 7.4: Percentage point differences in crime or delinquency at 12-13 years, by family and household characteristics at 4-5 and 10-11 years
Family and household characteristics 4-5 years (Wave 1) 10-11 years (Wave 4)
Unadjusted Adjusted Unadjusted Adjusted
Notes: Multivariate analyses adjusted for child demographic, maternal, and family and household characteristics; pregnancy and birth complications; and parenting style. Sample sizes - Wave 5: n = 3,581; Wave 1: n = 2,732; Wave 4: n = 2,410. Statistically significant differences are noted: * p < .05; ** p < .01; *** p < .001.
Number of siblings in household (ref. = none)
One -4.33 0.60 -1.77 0.84
Two -1.67 1.66 -2.85 -0.43
Three or more 0.35 4.47 -2.42 -2.41
Family socio-economic position (ref. = lowest 25%)
Middle 50% -9.56 *** -4.61 -11.28 *** -5.32
Highest 25% -14.47 *** -5.80 -13.36 *** -5.48
Financial stress (ref. = no)
Yes 10.18 *** 3.76 7.96 * -0.41
Unemployed (ref. = no)
Yes 14.62 *** 0.29 1.71 -5.26
SEIFA Index of Disadvantage (ref. = higher: top 33%)
Medium (middle 33%) -5.04 * -3.13 -2.03 -0.24
Lower (bottom 33%) -6.00 * -1.90 -5.39 * -2.23
Region of residence (ref. = urban)
Rural -1.71 -4.12 * -1.72 -3.48
Legal problems (ref. = no)
Yes 14.69 2.04 12.33 0.34
Parental injury or assault (ref. = no)
Yes 1.83 -0.23 7.50 * 6.42 *

Compared to children from families with a socio-economic position in the lowest 25%, children growing up in more advantaged families were less likely to be engaging in crime or delinquency at 12-13 years. This was the case irrespective of whether family socio-economic position was measured when children were aged 4-5 or 10-11 years; nonetheless, once again, when all other characteristics were taken into account, family socio-economic position was not a statistically significant risk factor.

Similarly, financial stress at 4-5 and 10-11 years was associated with higher rates of crime or delinquency at 12-13 years (by 10.2 and 8.0 percentage points respectively), yet that also failed to differentiate early-onset offenders from their non-offending counterparts once other factors were taken into account.

At age 4-5 years, experiencing financial stress and living in a household with no working parent (i.e., two-parent households where both were unemployed, or a single parent who was unemployed) were risk factors for crime or delinquency (10.2 and 14.6 percentage points more likely respectively), although these associations also appeared to be explained by other factors, as indicated by the results of the adjusted models.

Compared to those children living in areas of high levels of disadvantage (as measured by SEIFA), children living in more advantaged areas had lower rates of crime or delinquency (by 6.0 and 5.4 percentage points at 4-5 and 10-11 years respectively). As with family socio-economic position, this association was no longer statistically significant when other characteristics were taken into account.

Living in a rural area at 4-5 years was associated with a reduced involvement in crime or delinquency at age 12-13 after controlling for other factors (4.1 percentage points less likely to be delinquent), even though children in rural areas were just as likely to engage in delinquency as their urban counterparts, according to the results of the unadjusted analyses.

Finally, having a parent injured, assaulted or experiencing an illness was a risk factor when children were 10-11 years of age (7.5 percentage points more likely to be delinquent than children whose mothers did not report experiencing such problems). These children still had higher rates of crime or delinquency (by 6.4 percentage points) once other characteristics at 10-11 years of age were taken into account. Children whose parents have been injured or assaulted might have higher exposure to violence than others. Bacchini, Miranda, and Affuso (2011) found that exposure to community violence (both as a victim and witness) was associated with more involvement in antisocial behaviours among young adolescents. In addition, injury and illness could reduce parents' ability to monitor their child's activities and adaptation, which has also been reported to relate to children's antisocial behaviours (Barnes, Hoffman, Welte, Farrell, & Dintcheff, 2006).

Pregnancy and birth complications

In terms of pregnancy and birth complications (see Table 7.5), children whose mothers consumed alcohol frequently during pregnancy appeared to be less involved in delinquency after controlling for other factors (15.9 and 14.7 percentage points). These patterns emerged in the adjusted analyses even though children whose mothers drank while they were pregnant were not more involved in crime or delinquency (as indicated by the results of the unadjusted analyses).

Table 7.5: Percentage point differences in crime or delinquency at 12-13 years, by pregnancy and birth complications
Pregnancy and birth complications 4-5 years (Wave 1) 10-11 years (Wave 4)
Unadjusted Adjusted Unadjusted Adjusted
Notes: Multivariate analyses adjusted for child demographic, maternal characteristics, and family and household characteristics; pregnancy and birth complications; and parenting style. Sample sizes - Wave 5: n = 3,581; Wave 1: n = 2,732; Wave 4: n = 2,410. Statistically significant differences are noted: * p < .05; ** p < .01; *** p < .001.
Used alcohol during pregnancy (ref. = no)
Occasionally 0.39 0.24 -0.15 -0.43
Most days -13.86 -15.93 * -13.72 -14.66 *
Smoked during pregnancy (ref. = no)
Occasionally 12.52 ** 7.87 * 10.05 ** 6.14
Most days 17.98 *** 7.88 * 18.92 *** 9.06 *
High blood pressure in pregnancy (ref. = no)
Yes 0.01 1.81 -2.51 -2.78
Postnatal depression (ref. = no)
Yes 1.08 -2.04 1.03 -2.37
Birth weight of study child (ref. = lower: bottom 33%)
Medium (middle 33%) 2.41 5.08 * -1.09 1.28
Higher (top 33%) 0.29 3.41 -2.11 1.19

In addition, smoking occasionally or frequently during pregnancy was a significant risk factor, even when other characteristics were taken into account (7.9 percentage points higher for children at age 4-5 years than for children whose mother did not smoke at all during pregnancy). Children whose mothers smoked frequently during pregnancy were more likely (by 18.0 and 18.9 percentage points respectively) to engage in crime or delinquency than children whose mothers did not smoke at all. Even after adjusting for all other characteristics, these children were more likely than others to be involved in delinquency (7.9 and 9.1 percentage points respectively). This is consistent with a growing body of research indicating that smoking in pregnancy is associated with substantially elevated risks of antisocial behaviour among children (Wakschlag, Pickett, Cook, Benowitz, & Leventhal, 2002), although the reasons for this association are subject to much debate (D'Onofrio, Van Hulle, Goodnight, Rathouz, & Lahey, 2012).

Previous research has suggested that prenatal exposure to maternal smoking and drinking is related to negative neurobehavioral outcomes of children, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), increased externalising behaviour and aggression (Hill, Lowers, Locke-Wellman, & Shen, 2000; Huizink & Mulder, 2006).

We found children's birth weights to be non-significant in unadjusted analyses, but they became significant after multivariate adjustment. Compared to children with lower birth weights, those of medium birth weight were at higher risk of engaging in crime or delinquency once other characteristics were taken into account. This finding is likely to be a statistical artefact.6

No other prenatal or postnatal characteristics were linked to patterns of delinquent involvement at 12-13 years.

Child psychosocial characteristics

Table 7.6 shows unadjusted differences in the percentages of children engaged in crime or delinquency at 12-13 years that were associated with different levels of children's intelligence, temperament, social and emotional problems, and responsiveness to punishment. In particular, the following risk factors were associated with an increased risk of crime or delinquency at 12-13 years:

  • a more reactive temperament at 4-5 and 10-11 years;
  • higher levels of attention problems at 4-5 and 10-11 years;
  • more conduct problems at 4-5 and 10-11 years;
  • more emotional problems at 10-11 years; and
  • greater responsiveness to parental punishment at 4-5 and 10-11 years.

In terms of protective factors, the following characteristics were associated with a decreased risk of crime or delinquency at 12-13 years:

  • higher levels of intelligence at 4-5 and 10-11 years;
  • a more persistent temperament at 4-5 and 10-11 years;
  • a less sociable temperament at 4-5 years; and
  • a more prosocial orientation at 4-5 and 10-11 years.

There were several very large differences in the unadjusted rates of crime or delinquency by child psychosocial characteristics. The most notable differences at 4-5 and 10-11 years occurred for persistent temperament (8.6 and 16.0 percentage points lower respectively for higher compared to lower persistence), attention problems (13.5 and 17.8 percentage points higher respectively for higher compared to lower attention problems) and conduct problems (12.4 and 17.1 percentage points higher respectively for higher compared to lower conduct problems).

Very few of these risk and protective characteristics were independently associated with crime or delinquency at 12-13 years, once all other characteristics were taken into account. This applied even to many of those characteristics that appeared to substantially differentiate between early-onset offenders and their non-delinquent counterparts (e.g., persistence and prosocial orientation). The most likely explanation for this is that many of the child risk and protective factors are highly correlated with one another and do not independently predict the onset of delinquency in early adolescence.

Table 7.6: Percentage point differences in crime or delinquency at 12-13 years, by child psychosocial characteristics at 4-5 and 10-11 years
Child psychosocial characteristics 4-5 years (Wave 1) 10-11 years (Wave 4)
Unadjusted Adjusted Unadjusted Adjusted
Notes: Multivariate analyses adjusted for child demographic, maternal, and family and household characteristics; pregnancy and birth complications; and parenting style. Sample sizes - Wave 5: n = 3,581; Wave 1: n = 2,732; & Wave 4: n = 2,410. Statistically significant differences are noted: * p < .05; ** p < .01; *** p < .001.
Intelligence (ref. = lower: bottom 33%)
Medium (middle 33%) -4.45 -2.50 -7.62 *** -3.74
Higher (top 33%) -8.95 *** -4.02 -6.67 ** -2.49
Temperament - Reactivity (ref. = lower: bottom 33%)
Medium (middle 33%) 0.22 -1.05 5.99 * 3.33
Higher (top 33%) 7.70 ** 2.60 7.90 *** -1.98
Temperament - Persistence (ref. = lower: bottom 33%)
Medium (middle 33%) -4.14 0.26 -9.60 *** -1.79
Higher (top 33%) -8.60 *** -1.77 -15.96 *** -3.40
Temperament - Sociability (ref. = lower: bottom 33%)
Medium (middle 33%) 4.74 * 5.14 * -3.18 -3.28
Higher (top 33%) 7.95 *** 6.53 ** 3.91 4.36
Attention problems (ref. = lower: bottom 33%)
Medium (middle 33%) 7.26 *** 3.90 7.34 ** 0.41
Higher (top 33%) 13.54 *** 4.87 * 17.82 *** 3.04
Conduct problems (ref. = lower: bottom 33%)
Medium (middle 33%) 6.72 ** 4.15 5.19 * 0.01
Higher (top 33%) 12.38 *** 4.23 17.14 *** 5.58
Emotional problems (ref. = lower: bottom 33%)
Medium (middle 33%) -1.72 -2.34 1.76 0.34
Higher (top 33%) 2.43 0.05 2.31 * -4.48
Prosocial orientation (ref. = lower: bottom 33%)
Medium (middle 33%) -4.10 0.11 -7.99 ** -2.66
Higher (top 33%) -5.26 * 0.67 -12.71 *** -3.43
Peer problems (ref. = lower: bottom 33%)
Medium (middle 33%) -1.57 -4.82 * 0.97 0.41
Higher (top 33%) 5.77 * 0.02 11.38 *** 5.21 *
Responsiveness to punishment (ref. = lower: bottom 33%)
Medium (middle 33%) -1.56 -4.22 6.89 ** 3.23
Higher (top 33%) 5.46 * -1.74 10.64 *** 1.88

There were some child characteristics that remained statistically significant, however, even after other characteristics were taken into account in the adjusted analyses. Compared to children with medium and higher levels of sociability temperament, the proportions of children with lower levels of sociability temperament at 4-5 years who went on to engage in delinquency in early adolescence (12-13 years) were 5.1 and 6.5 percentage points lower. Relative to children with fewer peer problems at age 10-11 years, children with higher levels of peer problems were 5.2 percentage points more likely to engage in crime or delinquency in early adolescence. By contrast, peer problems in early childhood appeared to be negatively related to delinquency in early adolescence: compared to children with lower peer problems at age 4-5 years of age, the percentage of children with a moderate level of peer problems who became involved in crime or delinquency was 4.8 percentage points lower. This reflects a statistically significant difference between children with medium- and lower level problems with peers from the unadjusted analyses; hence, this result is likely to reflect a genuine difference in the relationship between early-onset crime or delinquency and peer problems, as observed at different ages. Finally, children with higher levels of attention problems at 4-5 years were more likely to be involved in crime or delinquency at 12-13 years even after adjusting for all other factors (4.8 percentage points higher).

Parenting styles

Table 7.7 focuses on differences in children's crime or delinquency at 12-13 years of age by parenting practices at 4-5 and 10-11 years. Harsh parenting was the only parenting style that was associated with crime or delinquency, with higher rates of crime or delinquency found among children whose mothers behaved harshly when those children were 10-11 years. Relative to children who experienced lower levels of harsh parenting, children who experienced either medium or higher levels of harsh parenting had higher rates of crime or delinquency (8.3 and 14.2 percentage points respectively). Statistically significant differences between lower levels and medium and higher levels of harsh parenting at 10-11 years remained even after controlling for all the other factors in the adjusted analysis (5.4 and 8.0 percentage points respectively). Given that the other risk and protective factors included a large number of child characteristics, the independent association between harsh parenting at 10-11 years and crime or delinquency two years later is notable.

Table 7.7: Percentage point differences in crime or delinquency at 12-13 years, by parenting styles at 4-5 and 10-11 years
Parenting styles 4-5 years (Wave 1) 10-11 years (Wave 4)
Unadjusted Adjusted Unadjusted Adjusted
Notes: Multivariate analyses adjusted for child demographic, maternal, and family and household characteristics; pregnancy and birth complications; and parenting styles. Sample sizes - Wave 5: n = 3,581; Wave 1: n = 2,732; Wave 4: n = 2,410. Statistically significant differences are noted: * p < .05; ** p < .01; *** p < .001.
Harsh parenting (ref. = lower: bottom 33%)
Medium (middle 33%) 1.83 -0.34 8.29 *** 5.39 *
Higher (top 33%) 5.93 * 0.39 14.18 *** 7.95 **
Parental warmth (ref. = lower: bottom 33%)
Medium (middle 33%) 0.87 1.08 -0.16 2.96
Higher (top 33%) 2.71 2.67 -1.30 4.78
Consistent parenting (ref. = lower: bottom 33%)
Medium (middle 33%) 3.31 4.37 0.17 1.69
Higher (top 33%) 0.13 1.34 -3.16 -0.53
Summary of risk and protective factors

In summary, while 25 of the 34 risk or protective factors at age 4-5 or 10-11 years of age were associated with crime or delinquency at 12-13 years, very few distinguished between delinquent and non-delinquent children once all other characteristics were taken into account.

Children were at greater risk of early-onset crime or delinquency even after all other characteristics were taken into account if:

  • they were boys;
  • they were Indigenous;
  • they lived in urban areas (at 4-5 years);
  • their mothers consumed alcohol at risky levels (at 10-11 years);
  • their mother had been injured, assaulted or had an illness (at 10-11 years);
  • their mother smoked regularly during pregnancy;
  • they were more sociable (at 4-5 years);
  • they had significant attention problems (at 4-5 years);
  • they had greater peer problems (at 10-11 years); and/or
  • they experienced higher levels of harsh parenting (at 10-11 years).

The effects of multiple risk and protective factors

That very few risk and protective factors remained statistically significant in adjusted analyses could be due to the tendency for risk factors to cluster together. For example, mothers who experience a high degree of psychological distress may be more likely to abuse alcohol or smoke during pregnancy. In similar respects, highly reactive children may also be hyperactive or manifest significant conduct problems; in turn, their parents may respond to their behaviour more harshly or they may be more likely to have problems relating to other children. In such cases, it can be difficult to isolate the independent effect of each risk (or protective) factor, net of all the other characteristics or behaviours that may occur alongside them.

Alternatively, there is some evidence the effects of risk and protective factors may be cumulative, meaning that exposure to multiple risk factors has more influence on children's involvement in crime or delinquency than exposure to a single risk factor (Loeber & Farrington, 1998; Stouthamer-Loeber, Loeber, Wei, Farrington, & Wikström, 1998). This implies that the specific risk factors to which children are exposed are potentially less important than the number of risks they encounter in their lives. To the extent that this pattern holds for Australian children, it provides a clear basis for identifying those children at the greatest risk of early-onset crime or delinquency. Rather than focusing on any specific risk factor, it may be possible to identify children who are at risk of early-onset offending by counting the number of risk and protective factors present in their lives.

A similar approach makes use of the results of our adjusted statistical models to weight them by their relative importance. The advantage of this approach is that it seeks to emphasise those risk and protective factors that clearly differentiate early-onset offenders from non-offenders (at the expense of other factors that appear less relevant) at the same time as taking the potentially cumulative effects of multiple risk and protective factors into account. Using the latter approach, we sought to predict whether the children were at higher or lower risk of early-onset crime or delinquency, based on the 34 risk or protective factors included in the study.7 Initially, we made two sets of predictions by identifying those children at higher or lower risk of early-onset crime or delinquency, based on their circumstances and characteristics in early (4-5 years) and late (10-11 years) childhood. We then replicated the analyses reported in the tables above using measures of the same risk and protective factors collected in the intervening years, when the children were aged 6-7 years (Wave 2) and 8-9 years (Wave 3). We then used those results to try to forecast which children were at higher and lower risk of early-onset crime or delinquency, based on their risk and protective factors in those years.

Figure 7.4 shows the percentage of children involved in crime or delinquency at age 12-13 by whether they were at higher or lower risk, based on statistical models of the risk or protective factors at 4-5, 6-7, 8-9 and 10-11 years. At each age, those children deemed to be at higher risk were significantly more likely to have engaged in crime or delinquency at 12-13 years. By contrast, only a small minority of children classified as being at lower risk of crime or delinquency reported committing any antisocial acts at 12-13 years. At 10-11 years, 62% of those who were deemed to be at higher risk went on to engage in crime or delinquency when they were 12-13 years, whereas 22% of those who were considered to be at lower risk, were engaging in crime or delinquency. This represents a three-fold increase in the risk of engaging in crime or delinquency. The pattern is remarkably consistent for the analyses of children at 4-5, 6-7 and 8-9 years, though the accuracy of the predictions seems greatest at 6-7 and 10-11 years.8

Figure 7.4: Percentage of children engaged in crime or delinquency at 12-13 years, by whether they were at higher or lower risk at 4-5, 6-7, 8-9 and 10-11 years, K cohort

Percentage of children engaged in crime or delinquency at 12–13 years, by whether they were at higher or lower risk at 4–5, 6–7, 8–9 and 10–11 years, K cohort, as described in accompanying text.

Notes: The "⌶" bars represent 95% confidence intervals. "⌶" bars that do not overlap indicate there is a statistically significant difference between boys and girls. Sample sizes - 4-5 years: n = 2,732; 6-7 years: n = 2,290; 8-9 years: n = 2,500; 10-11 years: n = 2,410.

Considering the number and breadth of the variables examined, however, it is surprising that the analyses do not do a better job of predicting those who are at higher risk and those who are at lower risk. Although the majority of children thought to be at risk of early-onset crime or delinquency actually did engage in some form of antisocial behaviour, Figure 7.4 highlights some of the pitfalls of trying to predict children's involvement in crime or delinquency in advance. First, one in five children thought to be at lower risk had engaged in some form of crime or delinquency in late childhood and early adolescence. Second, two out of every five children deemed to be at higher risk managed to avoid early entry in criminal or delinquent behaviour. Despite the fact that our predictive model correctly identified the majority of early-onset delinquents, it over-predicted crime or delinquency at the same time as it failed to spot a number of early-starters.

The implications of targeting programs and policies at higher risk groups need to be considered in this context. Two in five children who are at higher risk do not go on to engage in crime or delinquency at 12-13 years of age, whereas one in five children considered to be at lower risk start offending in early adolescence. Thus, targeting programs even based on a large array of risk factors may be an inefficient prevention strategy, even if those risk factors are relatively accurate predictors of subsequent involvement in crime.

The likely numbers of children at higher and lower risk, as well as the probable numbers that might report engaging in crime or delinquency, highlight that targeting based on the factors examined in our statistical models is not efficient. The LSAC K cohort is intended to represent approximately 250,000 Australian children born in 2003-04. Of them, as many as 13,600 could be considered to be at risk of crime or delinquency based on their circumstances in early childhood (i.e., 4-5 years). Yet, as the patterns above indicate, only about 8,100 of them might be expected to actually engage in crime or delinquency in early adolescence. The remaining 5,400 might commit offences at a later stage, but it seems more likely that programs aimed specifically at higher risk children will be redundant. At the same time, as many as 51,900 children are likely to engage in some form of crime or delinquency even though they may not be classified as being at risk. In other words, most children who report engaging in crime or delinquency in early adolescence are doing so with a low level of risk factors in early childhood.

These results highlight the dangers of overemphasising the child's temperament or early environmental conditions (e.g., harsh parenting) in explaining early-onset criminal or delinquent behaviour at the expense of other frequently overlooked aspects of children's lives, such as changes in the family, school, peer, or neighbourhood environment - not to mention, happenstance.

7.4 Conclusion

Despite the importance of preventing early-onset offending, surprisingly little research has examined its extent, its origins, or the factors that might protect against it among Australian children. In this chapter, we sought to address this gap in the literature by examining the prevalence of a range of criminal or delinquent behaviours among a representative sample of Australian children aged 12-13 years and the factors that might influence it. To our knowledge, this is the first nationally representative study of early-onset crime or delinquency to have been published in Australia and the first published Australian study of crime or delinquency among children born this century or around its turn.

The results confirm that early-onset crime or delinquency is relatively rare, with the majority of children evading any engagement in violent, property, or status offences. In fact, fewer than 10 per cent of boys and girls engaged in most of the criminal or delinquent behaviours examined. The exception, however, is fighting. Even though most children managed to avoid it, almost one in four boys admitted to getting into physical fights in public in the previous 12 months. Previous studies reported that crime or delinquency rises fairly rapidly in early adolescence and peaks in the late teenage years (Moffitt, 1993; Nagin, Farrington, & Moffitt, 1995). Therefore, the rates of children engaging in crime or delinquency might increase in the future as children get older.

In addition to describing the prevalence of early-onset crime or delinquency, we sought to identify risk and protective factors that were already in evidence in early childhood (4-5 years) and late childhood (10-11 years) and were associated with crime or delinquency at 12-13 years.9 Of the 34 risk or protective factors examined, 25 were associated with early criminal or delinquent behaviour, although very few of these could differentiate on their own between delinquent children and non-offenders once all other characteristics were taken into account. The key factors that were independently related to differences in engagement in crime included several modifiable factors, namely having:

  • a mother who consumed alcohol to a risky level (at 10-11 years);
  • a mother who had been injured, been assaulted or experienced an illness (at 10-11 years);
  • a mother who smoked during pregnancy;
  • attention problems (at 4-5 years);
  • higher levels of a sociable temperament style (at 4-5 years);
  • significant peer problems (at 10-11 years); and
  • experienced higher levels of harsh parenting (at 10-11 years).

Some independent factors related to criminal or delinquent behaviour were more fixed, however, and included:

  • child gender (male);
  • Indigenous status; and
  • living in urban areas (at 4-5 years).

We then classified children into two groups based on the risk and protective factors present in their lives: those at higher and lower levels of risk of crime or delinquency at age 12-13. Irrespective of the age at which these risk factors were collected, we were fairly successful at distinguishing between those who were at higher compared to lower risk, based on their previous circumstances and characteristics. Three in five of those children thought to be at higher risk did actually engage in crime or delinquency at 12-13 years. By contrast, only one in five of the children considered to be at lower risk were involved in crime or delinquency. While this may reaffirm the sense that many of the markers of early-onset crime or delinquency can be identified early in the life course, two in five of those children deemed at risk in the primary school years were not engaging in crime or delinquency in early adolescence, and one in five children not considered to be at risk did engage in crime or delinquency. When translated into the numbers of children that LSAC is intended to represent, 8,100 of the 13,600 deemed at risk were engaged in crime or delinquency in early adolescence, whereas as many as 51,900 of the 236,400 children in the low-risk group were engaged in criminal or delinquent behaviour. Thus, the extent to which early-onset offenders can be identified prospectively remains limited. Attempts to use early risk and protective factors to target early interventions therefore needs to acknowledge the fact that many seemingly high-risk children manage to avoid delinquency and that, as such, targeting resources on the basis of risk and protective factors might direct them away from other children in need. A public health approach to addressing crime or delinquency may therefore be a more productive approach to addressing this issue.

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Footnotes

1 At the time of writing, Walter Forrest was a Research Fellow at AIFS.

2 The Matrix Reasoning Test (WISC-IV) was first used at 6-7 years. As a result, we used the child's matrix reasoning score at ages 6-7 alongside the risk and protective factors from 4-5 years. Information about the child's birth weight or his or her mother's experiences in pregnancy was collected once, when the children were aged 4-5.

3 Analyses were conducted using logistic regression with longitudinal sample weights. Results presented in the tables following reflect estimated marginal effects.

4 These risk and protective factors relate to Parent 1, which in most cases is the child's mother. Accordingly, in this section, we refer to the characteristics of mothers.

5 Parental education, which relied on information from both mothers and fathers, was measured only at age 4-5.

6 Children's socio-demographic factors at the age of 4-5 years may be the suppressor factors between their birth weight and delinquency behaviour at 12-13 years.

7 We used the results of the adjusted logistic regression analyses to estimate the predicted probability of early-onset crime or delinquency for each child. Then, children for whom the predicted probability exceeded 0.5 were classified as being at higher risk and those with predicted probabilities below 0.5 were assigned to the lower risk groups.

8 As noted previously, the analyses used to estimate levels of risk were based on different-sized samples, depending on the ages at which the risk and protective factors were measured. As such, some of the differences observed between the predictive accuracy of these models could be due to slight differences in the composition of those estimation samples.

9 It should be noted that far more risk than protective factors were included.

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