Does the cycle of violence truly cycle?

Plus other reports from the British Psychological Society's Division of Forensic Psychology Annual Conference. From Ella Rhodes.

When we speak about the cycle of violence we make many assumptions, said Professor Cathy Widom (John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Graduate Centre, City University New York: pictured) in the first keynote at this Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Forensic Psychology. But is it truly the case that violence leads to violence, with such behaviour transmitted through the generations?

In the 1960s, Widom said, clinicians began to find an association between violence in young people and a history of sexual abuse. Later, in the 1970s, cross-sectional studies of delinquent children and patient groups began to emerge. However it wasn’t until the 80s that researchers began to trace the life courses of young children who were abused and neglected. These longitudinal studies showed an emerging picture of the link between neglect and violence.

Widom’s own prospective longitudinal study used 908 court-substantiated reports of neglect and abuse that happened between 1967 and 1971, and tracked their rates of violence looking at arrest records over the next 25 years. These were compared with a control group matched on age, race, sex and their family’s socio-economic status. Later she and her colleagues conducted interviews with participants and their children to assess whether neglected and abused children treat their own offspring in the same way.

In 1994, when participants had a mean age of around 32, Widom found both physically abused and neglected children to have the highest number of arrests for violent crimes. Widom pointed out neglected children are often ignored by researchers and the public, but neglect represents around three quarters of US Child Protective Services (CPS) cases. Those who were sexually abused as children had slightly lower levels of arrests for violent crimes, while those who had experienced multiple types of abuse had similar arrest levels to those of the control group – perhaps due to CPS becoming involved with these children at an earlier age. Around 20 years later the cohort of adults showed the same pattern, albeit now with more arrests among them – the highest level of arrest was in the neglected group, followed by physical abuse.

Widom said the context behind such data reveals how complex something like the so-called ‘cycle of violence’ is. For example, there are substantial race-related differences – while black people are much more likely to be arrested, abused and neglected, black children report much less violence than white abused and neglected children. The cycle of violence model has also perpetuated a belief that girls tend not to externalise their anger, but Widom’s work has shown that, compared with controls, girls who were abused and neglected have more risk of arrest as a juvenile and an adult and for a violent crime.

Another common assumption is that children who were sexually abused as children go on to become sex offenders – but data disputes this. Those children who were neglected or physically abused are at increased risk of sex offending, which isn’t the case for children who were sexually abused. Research in Australia showed around 3 per cent of sexually abused boys went on to become sex offenders and of those who committed a sexual offence 82 per cent had no history of maltreatment and 96 per cent had no history of sexual abuse.

Do parents with histories of abuse or neglect abuse their own children? Many studies have looked into this through self-report, but Widom pointed out that not many parents would be willing to admit to abusing their child. In her longitudinal study, she asked the children of the cohort about their own experiences of abuse and neglect. Her interviews found having a parent with a history of maltreatment leads to an increased risk of being reported to CPS. The offspring of these parents also had an increased risk of experiencing neglect, maltreatment and sexual abuse – but not physical abuse.

Widom said that while a cycle of violence exists, it isn’t inevitable, and that neglect is as damaging as physical and sexual abuse but has had little attention paid to it. She also suggested that violence prevention policies need to target maltreated girls as well as boys, and potentially the policies aimed at children who were sexually abused need to be re-evaluated, as this group isn’t that likely to go on to become sex offenders. Unsupported assumptions lead to harmful social policies, she added, as well as ineffective screening tools, worker bias and poor outcomes for children and families. 

Don’t ask whodunit, but whydunit

Forensic psychologists recently joined forces with the National Union of Journalists in an event to challenge the way in which crimes, and criminals, are reported in the media. During the Division of Forensic Psychology Conference, a panel including Vice Chair of the DFP Dee Anand and convicted murderer-turned-Guardian-columnist Erwin James turned their attention to psychologists. They asked how the media and clinicians can work together to improve the narratives within crime reporting.

Anand stressed the role of psychologists in changing narratives about criminals. He added that the media tends towards portraying offenders as having a debt to society, but it was important to remember these crimes happen, and individuals live within, a society. It is society, he added, that needs to take responsibility for offenders not vice versa – it is in this way we can begin to change.

Lawrence Jones, a Consultant Clinical Forensic Psychologist, said the stories often hidden behind crimes are in the public interest as they highlight failures in society that lead to serious offending. While trauma is not an automatic precursor to becoming a criminal and is not an excuse for crimes, he added, it was important to think about context in reporting on crimes. Offenders have often experienced a whole cascade of trauma throughout life and not a single event. These stories need to be heard, Jones said, especially when we consider the denial or rejection of historic child sex abuse which has recently come to light.

Mail on Sunday Investigative Reporter David Rose gave the journalist’s perspective on this. He started by outlining the fact that ‘the media’ isn’t a one-bodied many-headed beast consisting of a shared goal. Rose acknowledged that ethics may prevent many forensic psychologists from speaking out about the context behind individual offenders, but there are ways to work well with journalists. He said journalists are desperate for information at a time where the pressure on them to come up with content is greater than ever. He said: ‘If you give them access to people and information they will cherish you, and the last thing they want to do is write things to annoy you.’

Professor Peter Kinderman, Vice President of the BPS, emphasised a need to present people as responsive individuals who are taught by the world how best to respond to things. The idea of offending behaviour stemming from the function of the brain, rather than social circumstances, isn’t backed up by data, he added.

Kinderman said it was vital to understand what has happened to people and find out why they respond in the way they do. The problem for psychologists, he added, was to explain these inherently complicated ideas in a straightforward way. He set a challenge for journalists: ‘Tell your readers what they aren’t expecting to hear, challenge them to open their minds about why people might commit crime.’

Erwin James, who served 20 years of a life sentence for two murders and began writing a column for The Guardian from prison, said he had never expected he would be standing up and speaking at a conference such as the DFP’s.

James said when he was taken away from the Old Bailey he felt his life was over, and he was glad. He was first convicted of a crime at the age of 10, and by the time he was convicted of murder had 53 convictions to his name. During his time in prison James listened more and more to current affairs programmes, heard discussions of crime and punishment and began to see the world differently. After meeting a forensic psychologist he began to realise he had no choice over the life and circumstances he was born into.

‘I wasn’t born bad. We’re all born loveable. We’re all born with the potential to be who we were meant to be,’ he said. As someone on the receiving end of the media’s wrath James, who is now a Trustee of the Prison Reform Trust, emphasised the importance of understanding the stories behind crimes. He added that most people do not understand the reality of life behind bars, nor do most criminals want to hurt people. If we don’t give them a chance, he added, society is less safe. 

EMDR to help tackle PTSD
While many believe paedophilic tendencies are a fixed state clinical psychologist Dr Lisa Wright (Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust) spoke of one case study where EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) had reduced a client’s sexual interest in children. Treatment programmes for sex offenders, she said, usually use CBT, but when this desire is linked to a traumatic experience EMDR may be useful.

‘J’ was 27 years old and had been convicted of sexual assault against two boys aged seven and nine. J had PTSD from suffering abuse at the hands of a neighbour between the ages of seven and nine and was receiving EMDR to help tackle his PTSD symptoms.

Wright said that a year after his EMDR J’s intrusive memories, nightmares and flashbacks had all vanished. But interestingly he no longer experienced sexual arousal around children and his sexual desire towards adult females had become stronger. Wright said although this wasn’t the aim of therapy, it was a noteworthy outcome and therapists should consider the origins of sexual attraction to children when choosing the right therapy. 

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