Psychopathological Correlates of Polyvictimization in Young Offenders

Date01 December 2016
Published date01 December 2016
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2016, Vol. 43, No. 12, Decenber 2016, 1710 –1725.
DOI: 10.1177/0093854816662678
© 2016 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
University of Barcelona
Previous research has demonstrated a significant relationship between victimization and involvement in delinquency, but few
studies have focused on exploring the effects of victimization on young offenders. This study analyzed the relationship
between accumulated experiences of victimization, or polyvictimization, and the presence of psychopathology in 100 Spanish
offenders (81% males) aged 14 to 17 years (M = 16.08, SD = 0.99). By means of cluster analysis, three groups of polyvictim-
ized and two groups of less victimized offenders were identified. After controlling for demographic and criminal character-
istics, polyvictims were more likely to reach a clinical level (T 65) of externalizing behavior (odds ratio [OR] = 3.136) and
general impairment (OR = 2.878) than the remaining adolescents. These results showed that assessing multiple and less
common forms of victimization is an important task when evaluating adolescent offenders, as polyvictimization is highly
prevalent and places young people at a high risk of psychological impairment.
Keywords: victimization; polyvictimization; psychopathology; juvenile offenders; juvenile justice.
It has been widely claimed that there is an association between juvenile delinquency and
interpersonal victimization. Even though not every youth offender reported experiences
of victimization (Cuevas, Finkelhor, Turner, & Ormrod, 2007), the rates found in this group
are a particular cause for concern (Abram et al., 2004; Ford, Chapman, Mack, & Pearson,
2006; Ford, Elhai, Connor, & Frueh, 2010; Loeber, Kalb, & Huizinga, 2001). These rates
are even more disturbing when we consider that most of these children and adolescents are
exposed to multiple forms of interpersonal victimization, a phenomenon known as polyvic-
timization (Finkelhor, Ormrod, & Turner, 2007).
Whether due to victimization or not, more than 60% of young offenders have some type
of psychiatric disorder, a figure that is significantly higher than in the general adolescent
population (Croysdale, Drerup, Bewsey, & Hoffmann, 2008; Teplin, Abram, McClelland,
Dulcan, & Mericle, 2002). Few studies have linked victimization and mental health in
AUTHORS’ NOTE: This work was supported by General Direction of Penal Execution in the Community and
of Juvenile Justice [Direcció General d’Execució Penal a la Comunitat i de Justícia Juvenil] from the Catalan
Government [Generalitat de Catalunya], and the first author was supported by a PhD student fellowship from
Becas–Chile, Comisión Nacional de Investigación Científica y Tecnológica (CONICYT). Correspondence con-
cerning this article should be addressed to María Soledad Álvarez-Lister, Department of Clinical Psychology
and Psychobiology, University of Barcelona, Passeig Vall d’Hebron, 171, 08035 Barcelona, Spain; e-mail:
adolescents involved with the juvenile justice system (Croysdale et al., 2008; Ford, Grasso,
Hawke, & Chapman, 2013), and these studies have found higher rates of mental health
problems in young offender victims and polyvictims than in nonvictim juvenile offenders.
Considering that adolescent offenders are under the supervision of the juvenile justice sys-
tem, more research is needed to fully understand the associations between these variables in
this at-risk population. Accordingly, one of the main purposes of this study is to evaluate the
relationship between polyvictimization and psychopathology in young offenders in a south-
western European country.
Research over the last decades has shown that juvenile offenders represent a highly trau-
matized group, with a history of life-threatening events and direct or indirect experiences of
interpersonal victimization (Ford et al., 2013; Ford, Hartman, Hawke, & Chapman, 2008;
Kilpatrick et al., 2003; Stimmel, Cruise, Ford, & Weiss, 2014). Studies of youth at detention
centers have found lifetime rates of traumatic events ranging from 58% (Ford et al., 2013)
to 90% (Abram et al., 2004; Ford et al., 2008). Between 28% (Ford et al., 2013; Ford et al.,
2008) and 50% (Croysdale et al., 2008) of youth have reported at least one form of victim-
ization. It has been established that adolescents may be exposed to victimization both before
and after their criminal behavior. Several studies have shown that victimization is more
likely to precede delinquency than to follow it (Cuevas et al., 2007), and in fact victimiza-
tion is considered a predisposing factor for delinquent behavior in adolescents (Finkelhor &
Dziuba-Leatherman, 1994; Stouthamer-Loeber, Loeber, Homish, & Wei, 2001). However,
delinquency has also been identified as a risk factor of future victimization (Loeber et al.,
2001; Shaffer & Ruback, 2002), due to the risky lifestyles of adolescent offenders (Cuevas
et al., 2007). Hence, victimization and delinquency are interconnected, and often mutually
stimulate each other (Loeber et al., 2001).
The combination of victimization and delinquency has been associated with increased
mental health problems. The study by Cuevas et al. (2007) with a young community sample
found that adolescents who had delinquent behavior and had also been victimized had more
mental health problems than those who had only suffered victimization and those who had
only engaged in delinquent behavior.
In the literature concerning juvenile justice, studies usually assess the more severe expe-
riences of victimization (such as child sexual abuse, neglect, and physical abuse) docu-
mented in official records, without considering their cumulative impact or the relationship
with other experiences. Lately, a more comprehensive perspective has begun to consider
less frequently studied forms of victimization and the incidence and impact of polyvictim-
ization (Finkelhor et al., 2007).
In this context, some recent studies, all conducted in the United States, have established
polyvictimization rates among youth offenders and have begun to report their associations
with externalizing and internalizing disorders. Ford et al. (2010) found that 35% of a national
sample of 4,023 adolescents who reported criminal behavior could be identified as polyvic-
tims, which is nearly 3 times higher than the estimated rates of polyvictimization recorded

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