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Monday, October 1, 2018

A New Book About Crime and Children

Children and crime can be connected in a lot of different ways. Children can commit crimes, sometimes starting when very young as “runners” for older criminals. If caught, they may receive various penalties considered as interventions, from placement in foster care to imprisonment (sometimes with life sentences!) as juveniles. They can be victims of crime, too, and some would even argue that in having been brought into criminal activity they have already been victimized. Arguments about children’s rights and the reasons children become criminals—or victims of crimes like child abuse and neglect—are intense, and reflect the ongoing culture wars of the United States and their associated differences on child-rearing and treatment of adult criminals.

Clearly it is a complicated task to discuss the many topics we can categorize as “children and crime”. There are plenty of books out there that focus on some single topic like child maltreatment or juvenile justice. But a new book by Dr. Connie Tang brings all these topics together in a coherent way. Children and crime (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019) is an unusual and valuable contribution that can be used with benefit by the general public as well as by undergraduate and graduate students in psychology, sociology, social work, and criminology. (And if you belong to the general public you don’t have to  worry about the learning objectives and thought questions in each chapter, but just dip in to what catches your attention!)

Children and crime emphasizes the need for critical thinking about complex problems by discussing the real problems of research design that must be addressed when it is impossible to do experimental work that separates possible causes and effects in a meaningful way. This is the part of the book that most psychologists and psychology students will find most useful. But in addition Dr. Tang expresses a deep compassion and sympathy for children caught in the toils of crime, a practical concern reflecting her early training as asocial worker. A third factor that makes this book unique is Dr. Tang’s awareness of cultural differences, born of her own upbringing in China and adult life and parenthood in the United States (which, full disclosure, she and I have discussed many times).

Like any other serious work on the events of childhood, Children and crime has to deal with the fact that although laws are written as if every person from birth to age 18 has the same needs and abilities, this is actually far from true. Dr. Tang shows three graphs early in the book that demonstrate this fact clearly with respect to children and their involvement with crime. The first graph shows that almost 50% of child victims of  homicide are under 6 years of age; 10% are between 6 and 11; perhaps 7% are 12-14; and more than 35% are 15-17. In other words, young children are most often killed, school-age children and young adolescents quite rarely, and older adolescents with increasing frequency. In a second graph, the child homicide victim’s relationship with the killer is shown. Almost 60% of victims under 6 are killed by family member, another 20% by acquaintances, very few by strangers, and almost 20% by unknown persons.  Child victims between 6 and 11 are killed with about the same frequency by family and unknown persons (about 40% each), and less than 10% of the time by both acquaintances and strangers. By ages 12-14, family killers are reduced to 10% and stranger killings to about 15%, while acquaintances are the killers 25% of the time and killers are unknown in about 50% of cases. These developmental changes proceed with victims aged 15-17, who are rarely killed by family, somewhat more often by strangers, but nearly 40% of the time by acquaintances and 55% of the time by unknown persons. A third graph shows victim age differences in weapons used in the killing: for the youngest children, knives or objects are rarely used, firearms in only about 15% of cases, and the most common method of killing (50%) is “personal”--  that is, the child is killed by beating, strangulation, or similar methods. By ages 6-11, firearms have become the method of killing 50% of the time and “personal” methods have shrunk to 5%. By ages 12-14, 65% of the child victims are killed by firearms, and by ages 15-17 this has increased to 85%.

These developmental differences in child homicide victims reflect a range of factors like physical vulnerability, contact with family and with outsiders, and active involvement in dangerous activities, all of which change with age. Children and crime offers information about psychological theories of development and about social and community factors like those discussed by Urie Bronfenbrenner, as Dr. Tang uses these concepts to discuss how maltreatment, delinquency, and children’s eyewitness testimonies can be understood.

This is a really valuable book. It is not a general discussion of children and the law , or even an extensive discussion of the laws of various countries concerning  a single topic (like the enormously-detailed tome of Hoyano and Kennan, Child Abuse: Law and Policy Across Boundaries, that covers most English-speaking countries). Much more usefully for most readers Children and crime brings together overviews of relevant topics in ways that introduce important ideas to beginning students or general readers and that prepare readers to go more deeply into the complex research literature.

PS: I do have a tiny criticism. If I had written this book (which I would be proud to have done) I would not have been so nice about repressed memory! This is a contentious topic, but I think the results are in, and do not support the idea of repression or the related “recovered memory”.

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