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Children’s contact with police no clear precursor for criminal career

Children who come into contact with the police are not destined to become long-term offenders. This appears from research conducted by Babette van Hazebroek, who defends her dissertation on 30 September 2021.

Children sometimes come into contact with the police at a young age. There are all sorts of reasons and also consequences attached to this. What factors contribute to children displaying criminal behaviour? And why does one child continue to display delinquent behaviour, while another child stops? These questions led Babette van Hazebroek to write her dissertation on delinquent behaviour in children and young people. 'During my degree in Criminology I became interested in how delinquent behaviour develops in children and adolescents. It led me to also study subjects related to psychology. Ultimately I obtained master’s degrees in  Levensloopcriminologie (life course criminology) and Kinder- en Jeugdpsychologie (child and youth psychology) from VU University Amsterdam.'

Babette van Hazebroek

After completing her master’s degrees she started work as a lecturer at VU University Amsterdam and also at Beter met Thuis, a support group run by youth care organisation Spirit in the Amsterdam region. 'There I helped children and youngsters  aged 6 to 16 years who were (temporarily) unable to live with their parents due to various problems. What these children told me about their home situation, as well as their behaviour in the group, raised my interest in the development of antisocial and delinquent behaviour even further. For that reason, I chose to focus my research on risk factors in various areas of life, like I’ve done in my dissertation.'

In her dissertation Van Hazebroek focuses on the nature and reasons for the long-term development of criminal behaviour in children who have come into contact with the police.  First she examined to what extent various developmental paths can be distinguished in delinquent behaviour of this group of children. She then proceeded to search for an explanation for the variation in the development of delinquent behaviour based on possible clusters and mutually reinforcing effects of risk factors from various areas of life, such as the individual, family, peers, school and the neighbourhood. 'In this way I also discovered – besides studying the relationship between specific risk factors and developmental paths of delinquent behaviour – whether we can clarify differences in the long-term development of delinquent behaviour on the basis of exposure to combinations of these risk factors. Studying the combined effect of these factors is important since in Criminology it is believed that risk factors often exist together and are mutually reinforcing.  Therefore I focussed my dissertation on the interplay of risk factors in various areas of life.’

No precursor

Van Hazebroek’s research shows that children who have come into contact with the police are not necessarily predestined to develop into long-term offenders. In addition, there are large differences in how children develop who later come into contact with the police again, from those who display criminal behaviour sporadically and increasingly less, to those who display delinquent behaviour very frequently and persistently up to early adulthood. Children with a low level of intelligence who come from disadvantaged neighbourhoods display very frequent and persistent delinquent behaviour more often than children with relatively few problems in various areas of life.  

What do these conclusions imply for ways of dealing with children who display criminal behaviour? 'Deciding on an appropriate intervention is ideally based on an evaluation of exposure to risks in various areas of life, since the level of risk in these areas of life is connected to variations in the long-term development of criminal behaviour’,  says the researcher. 'For the group of children who have few problems in various areas of life, a short group intervention at school or in the neighbourhood would probably be sufficient since it is likely that this group will not continue to display criminal behaviour.'

'More information needs to be collected in the future on (external) criminal interventions.'

In addition, an intervention could be offered to children with multiple issues and their parents by offering one-on-one supervision to deal with the child’s problems, within the family, with their peers and at school. An attempt could also be made to improve the relationship with school and prosocial peers, because research shows that the frequency of punishable behaviour possibly increases if the child is skipping school and has developed friendships with peers who are involved in delinquent behaviour.

The conclusions in the dissertation call for future research, says Van Hazebroek. 'More information could be collected on (external) criminal interventions which could provide more insights into the reasons why children follow certain paths in their development. Models could also be developed which predict future delinquent behaviour at the individual level instead of at group level. Future research could therefore offer further recommendations for practice, to be able to develop individualised care as far as possible.'

Supervisor Professor J.W. de Keijser on Babette van Hazebroek’s research:

'Babette has written an impressive dissertation. In terms of criminal behaviour, little was known about the nature and intensity of the long-term development of children who have come into contact with the justice system at a young age. Do these children have an intensive and protracted criminal career ahead of them? Taking a multi-disciplinary view, Babette has analysed various developmental paths of young people. The results of her analyses are remarkable and highly interesting. One important part of the research was the combination of various (biological and social) domains of characteristics that can play a role in those developmental paths, and in particular the interaction between the domains.

At the start of the PhD process, time was needed to decide on the scope of the research, but once the ‘engine’ was up and running the pieces of the puzzle came together in a steady flow. Babette approached her research with great determination and positive energy. It was therefore a pleasure to have the honour of supervising Babette (though I was not alone of course) and I am very proud of her wonderful achievement.’

Text: Floris van den Driesche
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