Most boys who commit sexual assaults have been exposed to violence at home, Queensland study shows

by Eden Gillespie, 6 September, 2022 The Guardian

Researchers say data highlights cycle of violence and that punitive responses are not always the best approach

A young man or boy with his hands over his face looking distressed
Young male sexual offenders often had extremely dysfunctional family environments, leading to ‘very disordered ways’ of engaging with others, Queensland researchers said. Photograph: Tero Vesalainen/Alamy

New research undertaken by Griffith University, and funded by Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety, shows males aged 10-17 who committed the most serious offences had experienced the highest level of “adverse” events in their home life.

The report’s authors, James Ogilvie and Lisa Thomsen, said these offenders often had extremely dysfunctional family environments, leading to “very disordered ways” of engaging with others.

“From a social learning perspective, boys being exposed to their fathers being violent towards their mothers gives them a template for how they might solve problems within their own relationships,” Ogilvie said.

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"Rather than be able to solve problems in a healthy way, they typically resort to violence and sometimes sexual violence to get what they need.”

The researchers analysed the histories of 377 young males referred to the Griffith Youth Forensic Service (GYFS) after perpetrating sexual offences.

Data from the Department of Youth Justice on 6,047 young males, who were subject to “supervised orders” for both sexual and non-sexual offending between 2010 and 2016, was also examined.

The researchers found 58.6% of those referred to GYFS had been exposed to domestic and family violence (DFV), while about one in four had been sexually abused prior to their offending.

Half of these boys were also exposed to emotional and physical abuse and neglect, or had a caregiver who engaged in substance abuse.

These experiences were slightly less prevalent in data collected by the department, with 37% of boys who committed sexual offences having exposure to “DFV-related experiences”, compared with 28.5% of those with violent offences and 20.1% of those with non-violent offences.

The data showed boys exposed to abusive caregivers were younger when they first had contact with the criminal justice system and had more extensive offending histories compared to those who were not exposed to domestic and family violence.

It’s difficult to compare this data with the general population due to significant data gaps on the nature, extent and impacts of family violence on Australian children.

But Ogilvie said the research highlighted the cycle of violence and that punitive responses are not the best approach to prevent reoffending by children who are victims as well as perpetrators.

“Inflicting further harm or punishment on these young people is not going to be the most effective way of managing their future risk of offending,” Ogilvie said.

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