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Canadian jails and prisons are full of people who experienced various forms of abuse while they were themselves children, according to a summary of research recently published by a team of researchers from across Canada. Cumulating results from 34 different studies over the last 30 years, the researchers found that about half the people imprisoned in Canada had been victims of at least one form of child abuse – physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse or neglect. This means that many people with childhood trauma are being placed again into the traumatic environment of imprisonment. These rates are much higher than those in the overall Canadian population, though about a third of all Canadians report some form of childhood abuse or neglect.
The researchers note several important aspects of their findings. First, different studies reported very different rates of childhood abuse, including rates both much higher and much lower than the 50% average. The studies used different methods, which might give different results. The greater the variance in study results, the more the average figure has to be has to be treated with caution. To understand this caution, consider 3 studies of the effects of a particular drug. One study reported that the drug worked on 90% of people, one reported it worked on 50% of people, and one reported it worked on 10% of people. The average would be 50%, but one would want a lot more evidence before concluding that average gave a true picture.
The definition of child abuse can be quite broad. This study used the World Health Definition, which includes any behaviour that creates actual or potential harm to health, development, or dignity. Under this definition beating a child badly and often is child abuse, but calling a child a humiliating name on one occasion could equally fit the definition. While any wrong to a child can potentially be damaging, some harms are obviously much greater and more traumatic than others.
All forms of abuse matter
Reported rates of abuse were high in all categories. Though sexual abuse tends to get the most public attention, rates of physical and emotional abuse and neglect were also very high. However relatively few studies measured forms of abuse other than physical or sexual abuse. Still, rates of physical and emotional abuse were higher overall. This suggests that consideration of child abuse needs to pay attention to all forms, not just to one, especially since other evidence shows that experiencing multiple forms of abuse has much more powerful negative effects than experiencing just one form.
The researchers point out that the relationship between abuse in childhood and later criminal activity is not clear. Most people who experience childhood abuse do not commit crimes. The same circumstances that often lead to abuse, such as poverty or substance abuse in the home, are also related to an increased likelihood of criminal behaviour. The criminal justice system also tends to focus its attention on poor and marginalized people, who are more likely to have experienced abuse in childhood. So one cannot say with confidence that abuse in childhood causes or directly leads to criminality, only that the two are associated in some way.
Whatever the qualifications, there can be no doubt that the rates of childhood abuse among people in jail in Canada are very high. The problem is that being imprisoned is itself a traumatic event, not only because conditions in jails and prisons are often very harsh and even dangerous, but because imprisonment also brings many other kinds of loss, such as family connections, income, and enduring shame.
The researchers call for “trauma-informed services that seek to create a safe, transparent, and empowering environment while avoiding retraumatization”. Yet this seems exactly the opposite of what imprisonment currently does, nor is it clear that any kind of prison could accomplish that goal.
This research has recently been widely reported in Canadian media. However these reports do not always provide important context as described in this post.
Source: Claire Bodkin, Lucie Pivnick, Susan Bondy, Carolyn Ziegler, Ruth Elwood Martin, Carey Jernigan, and Fiona Kouyoumdjian. History of childhood abuse in populations incarcerated in Canada: A systematic review and meta-analysis. American Journal of Public Health. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2018.304855