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Family violence, abuse, and related family issues of incarcerated delinquents with alcoholic parents compared to those with nonalcoholic parents.

Family-related variables consistently have been shown to be factors in the absence or presence of criminality. Travis Hirschi, the theorist most closely identified with Social Control or Bonding Theory, links delinquent behavior to the quality of the social bond. In Herschi's (1969) text on delinquency causation he argues that basic impulses motivate people to become involved in crime and delinquency unless there is a reason not to. He theorized that individuals who are most tightly bonded to social groups such as family, school, and church are less likely to commit delinquent acts. He states that attachment and bonding to others through ties of affection and respect for parents, teachers, and others relates to their ability to internalize norms and develop a conscience. The stronger the attachment, the less likelihood of committing a delinquent act. He also maintains that the most important variable that insulates a child against delinquent behavior is the attachment to parents. Even if a family is broken by divorce or separation, the child needs to maintain attachments to one or both parents. He goes further to assert that if the child is alienated from the parent, he will not develop an adequate conscience or superego.

Family Structure and Relationships

The relationship between divorce and breakdown of family structure and delinquency has been extensively investigated by researchers. Most of the studies have found that delinquents do come from broken homes significantly more often than do nondelinquents. The Gluecks' classic 1950 study comparing 500 delinquents and 500 nondelinquents found that over 60% of the delinquents came from broken homes as compared to a little over a third of the nondelinquents. More recent studies by Haskell and Yablonsky (1982) and others have found clear evidence of the association between delinquency and broken homes. Many researchers, however, have questioned the real importance of the broken home and have focused instead on the quality of the relationships and general atmosphere in the home. Yablonsky and Haskell (1988) found that the internal patterns of interaction within the family were more important than the family structure in explaining delinquency. In a study of self-reported delinquency among 500 youth, Hindelang (1973) concluded that attachment to parents was inversely related to delinquency, while Cernkovich and Giordano (1987) in a survey of 900 youths found that it was the quality of the relationships in the home, not the structure of the family, that was most important.

The modern American family has become more and more isolated and fragile with urbanization, mobilization, and the decline of the traditional extended family unit. Even in intact families the stress and problems can create a pressure cooker type of environment. Alcoholism and drug abuse as ways of coping are causing major problems for many American families.

Alcoholism: Families at Risk

It has been estimated that approximately 20 million children in the United States live in homes with at least one alcoholic or drug-addicted parent. Research has consistently documented that children growing up in an alcoholic or chemically dependent environment are at substantially greater risk for a variety of disorders than those from nonabusing homes. The dynamics of dysfunctional family systems such as these may severely disrupt the attachment formation between parent and child. Krois, (1987) found that children of alcoholics are more likely to be expelled from school, become drop-outs, or be referred to the school psychologist for psychological and emotional problems. In comparing youth from alcoholic homes to a control group of disadvantaged youth, Wegscheider (1981) reported that on every variable studied, children of alcoholics fared worse than disadvantaged youth; they were three times more likely to be placed in foster homes, twice as likely to be married under the age of 16, had a much higher incidence of juvenile delinquency and mental illness, and were more likely to attempt suicide. O'Gorman and Oliver-Diaz (1987) concluded that these children were lower in self-esteem, perceived less paternal affection, and had more external locus of control than did children from nonalcoholic environments. El-Guebaly and Offord (1977) documented an increase in hyperactivity, depression, and aggression. An extensive review of the literature performed by Krois (1987) confirmed ten specific problem areas of children from alcoholic families. Most common were school problems, substance abuse, problems with peer relationships, depression, hyperactivity, aggression, low self-esteem, external locus of control, dependency, and legal problems. Owen, Rosenberg, and Barkley (1985) also documented a statistically significant likelihood of emotional disturbance and substance abuse in children of alcoholic parents as compared with those from nonalcoholic families.

Family Dysfunction and Bonding

According to many child psychologists, if proper bonding and subsequent attachment does not occur between a child and significant others early in life, the child will develop mistrust and deep-seated rage. In his book, High Risk: Children without a Conscience (1990), Magid (1990) noted that most children who are unattached will suffer some form of psychological damage later in life and many will be diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD). He also notes that psychopaths, who were unattached and unbonded as children, are growing in numbers and pose a threat to society. Jerome Miller of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives (1986) says that there is no question that poor bonding results in later maladjusted behavior - that in every case of a child murderer he has studied there was something very wrong in the family, particularly with the mother or father.

In the alcoholic family system, the parents cannot give the children the type of consistent love and nurturing necessary for proper bonding. The alcoholic is often absent, or when present, is very inconsistent in his or her behavior, harsh and abusive one minute and remorseful and kind the next. The spouse is usually totally focused on the alcoholic, neglecting the children's needs. It is not uncommon for all the children in such a family to be alienated from both parents and each other and/or to assume maladaptive survival roles that they carry into adulthood.

It also has been documented that the children in these homes are often exposed to family violence and are frequent victims of psychological and physical abuse. According to Morehouse (1984) children of alcoholic parents live in an environment beset by a bewildering array of emotional conflicts, the most common being inconsistent and antagonistic behavior. Deutsch (1982) contends that family dynamics are "remarkably uniform in most chemically dependent families and are significantly different from the conditions which govern other households." Responding to this environment requires a great amount of energy on the part of family members. Some family members simply give up and withdraw, some act out, some try to normalize and control the situation by overachievement, and others assume roles that seem to bring some relief to the family system. In the end, all family members experience extreme difficulty and suffer significant personal losses. The dynamics of progressive alcoholism are disruptive and the family and individual reactions are usually "crisis state" or "survival" adaptations. Some of these adaptations are effective and restore temporary balance; however, they lose their effectiveness in adulthood because they are built upon distorted realities.

In addition to the empirical research, clinical observations have consistently maintained that children of a chemically dependent family are seriously impaired. Priest (1985) estimated that 80% of all children of alcoholics have disabling emotional problems. Stress illnesses such as bed-wetting, hyperactivity, and asthma are part of the childhood syndromes, with colitis, ulcers, and migraines, and bulimia often commonly reported. Clinicians and caregivers also report promiscuity in daughters, excessive aggressiveness in sons, abnormal levels of tension and competition between siblings, and negative bonds between family members as common behaviors. Other clinical observations include delinquency, anxiety, depression, hostility, sexual confusion, development of rigid moral codes of behavior, being overly demanding of self and others, difficulty in accepting failure or limitations, and a need to dominate as a defense against internal signs of weakness (Hecht, 1973).

Purpose of the Present Study

In spite of the strong evidence linking individuals who grow up in dysfunctional families to a variety of psychosocial difficulties that often stay with them throughout life, few studies have dealt specifically with individuals in the criminal justice system. The primary purpose of this paper is to investigate the family system and individual differences between juvenile offenders who grew up in alcoholic or other substance-abusing homes to those offenders who did not.

Research Questions

1. Were offenders who grew up in substance-abusing homes exposed to more family violence?

2. Do offenders from substance-abusing homes experience more abuse and neglect?

3. Is there a greater incidence of runaway behavior in the backgrounds of offenders from substance-abusing homes?

4. Is there a difference in overall family functioning in terms of adaptability and cohesiveness?

5. Is there a difference in self-reported juvenile delinquency?

6. Do offenders from substance-abusing homes have a tendency to become chemically dependent more so than those from nonabusing families?


An available sample of 68 youths incarcerated at a state juvenile institution for delinquents in Southeast Missouri were administered a series of questionnaires designed to answer the above questions. These youths represented over 90% of the population at the facility. Even though the sample was not random, staff at the institution assured researchers that the youth were typical of those normally received throughout the year and represented all areas of the state - urban and rural.


Along with a questionnaire that solicited basic demographic and descriptive information, the Children of Alcoholic Screening Test (C.A.S.T.) was administered. This instrument can be used to psychometrically identify individuals who have lived with chemically dependent parents (Jones, 1985). It includes 30 yes/no questions such as "have you ever withdrawn from and avoided outside activities and friends because of embarrassment and shame over a parent's drinking and/or drug problem?" Jones (1985) found that a cutoff score of six or more reliably identified 100% of the clinically diagnosed children of chemically dependent parents and 100% of the self-reported children of alcoholics. He administered the C.A.S.T. to 97 children of alcoholics and 118 randomly selected control group adults. The group scores were correlated with the total C.A.S.T. scores and yielded a validity coefficient of .78.

The "Are You Alcoholic/Chemically Dependent Questionnaire (AYAQ) was also administered. This is a 19-item, yes/no scale developed and used by researchers and clinicians at the Johns Hopkins Hospital to assess alcoholic behavior. The AYAQ uses questions such as: "Have you gotten into financial difficulties as a result of drinking and/or using?" to assess an individual's chemical dependency. According to the developers of this questionnaire, if the respondent answers yes to at least three or more of the questions, it is highly probable that he/she has a chemical dependency problem.

Level of family functioning in terms of cohesion and adaptability was measured by the Family Adaptability and Cohesion Evaluation Scales (FACES III). This is a 30-item, self-report scale developed by Olson, Russell, & Sprenkle (1980) that provides an assessment of family cohesion and adaptability as perceived by the individual family member. In developing this instrument, over 50 family research and therapy constructs were conceptually clustered. Two significant dimensions of family behavior, cohesion and adaptability, were identified and postulated. Cohesion was defined as the emotional bonding family members have with one another, and the degree of individual autonomy a member experiences within the family system. Adaptability refers to the ability of the family system to change its power structure, role relationships, and relationship rules in response to situational and developmental stress. The likert-type response choices range from 1 (almost never) to 5 (almost always). Typical questions on the cohesion dimension include: "Family members are supportive of each other during difficult times"; and "In our family everyone goes his/her own way." On the adaptability dimension: "It is hard to know what the rules are in our family"; "We shift household responsibilities from person to person."

A series of subscales to measure family and individual variables such as abuse and neglect, runaway and delinquent behavior, and family violence was developed by researchers with the assistance of practicing professionals in various human service fields such as juvenile court and child welfare who assured researchers of the validity of the questions used in the subscales. Examples of the likert-type questions used in the subscales include: Family violence: "Did family fights ever result in the police being called?" Child abuse: "Have your parents ever hit you hard enough to leave a bruise?" Parental neglect: "Did your parents ever leave you alone for long periods of time when you were small (under 12 years of age)?"


Of the 68 youths in the study, 40 (59%) scored at least a 6 on the C.A.S.T., indicating that they were from homes where alcoholism and/or chemical dependency was a serious problem. The remaining 28 (41%) were determined not to be from chemically dependent homes.

Level of Family Functioning: FACES III

Of the 40 youths from alcoholic families, 6 (15%) scored within the normal range on FACES III, while 6 (21%) of those from nonchemically dependent families also scored normal. Thirteen (33%) of those from chemically dependent families scored in the severely dysfunctional range, while 9 (32%) of those from nonchemically dependent families did. The differences in family dysfunction between the two groups were not found to be statistically significant (see Table 1). Both groups were found to be significantly more dysfunctional than were nationally normed nondelinquent populations.

Substance Abuse of Juveniles

A very significant finding that seemed to confirm the generational nature of chemical dependency was that 28 (70%) of the juveniles from these homes scored positive on the addiction scale compared to 13 (46%) of the delinquents from nonchemically dependent families. The differences were found to be statistically significant (Table 1).



Many studies have linked serious or excessive family conflict and violence to later criminal behavior. Nye (1963) found that conflict between parents is a better predictor of delinquency than is a broken home. Other researchers have reported that children who grow up in homes where they witness violence and conflict tend to exhibit patterns of emotional disturbance, behavior problems, and social conflict. Among the youths from alcoholic families, 24 (63%) reported that family violence was so bad, police had to be called to their house at least once compared to only 8 (29%) of those from nonalcoholic families. On the total violence subscale, 25 (62%) of the offenders from alcoholic families scored in the high range as compared to only 6 (21%) of those not from alcoholic families.


Family relationships have long been recognized as factors leading to runaway behavior. The 1978 Annual Report on the Runaway Youth Act reported that 80% of runaways indicated that they left home because of family problems (DHEW, 1980). The number of runaway adolescents has increased dramatically in the past 25 years and even more sharply in the past decade; estimates vary between 1 and 4 million annually (Moses, 1978). In contrast to previous theories on runaway behavior that characterized runaway children as emotionally disturbed or mentally deficient with poor impulse control (Robbins & O'Neal, 1959) or as a normal part of growing up (Homer, 1973) the more popular explanation today is that running away is a response to problems and stress in the home (Johnson & Carter, 1980). Brennan, Huizinga, & Elliott (1978) found that runaways are beaten by their parents twice as often as nonrunaways, and that they experience long-term family conflicts.

In the current study 30 (83%) juveniles from alcoholic homes reported at least one runaway from their family, while only 13 (45%) of the youth from nonalcoholic homes reported running away.

Child Abuse

In the present study, 17 (43%) of the juveniles from alcoholic families scored in the highest range of the child abuse subscale compared to only 6 (21%) of those from nonalcoholic families. Five of those from alcoholic families reported that they were hospitalized as a result of a parent's abuse, while none of the juveniles from nonalcoholic families reported this type of abuse. Twenty-seven (68%) of the youths from alcoholic families also reported being hit by a parent hard enough to leave a bruise, as compared to only 7 (23%) of those from nonalcoholic families.

Juvenile Delinquency

Another maladaptive response to the stress in an alcoholic family system is law-violating behavior or delinquency. A delinquent life-style may be a defense mechanism or coping strategy used to suppress feelings of doubt, shame, and fear that one develops in an alcoholic home. It also may be a way to express anger caused by parental maltreatment or rejection. Among the incarcerated delinquent population, 39 (97%) of those from alcoholic homes scored in the high range of the self-reported delinquency scale as compared to 24 (86%) of those from non-alcoholic homes.


It is apparent from the results that the population studied experienced significantly more family dysfunction than did offenders from nonsubstance-abusing families on almost every variable; neglect was the only variable that did seem to be significantly different in either group. The juvenile offenders with an alcoholic parent were found to have been victims of and exposed to much higher levels of family violence and abuse; they responded by running away and becoming substance abusers themselves significantly more than did those from nonalcoholic homes. It is postulated that they might be at much higher risk of continuing anti-social behavior and chemical dependency than those from nonabusing families. A suggested direction for future research would be to investigate and compare recidivism rates from the two groups over a period of time to investigate this assumption.

From a policy point of view it would seem important that juvenile and adult justice agencies realize that this may be an at-risk group and develop the means to identify and provide specialized intervention services that help these offenders deal with their childhood experiences.


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Edward L. Leoni, Professor of Health and Leisure, Southeast Missouri State University.
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Author:McGaha, Johnny E.; Leoni, Edward L.
Date:Jun 22, 1995
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