Child Abuse, Trauma, Crime and Oprah


Child abuse and neglect is probably the heart and soul of our crime problem in the United States; not poverty, not employment, not anything else.

I have always been struck by offenders and their rationals for criminal activity. I sat with a correctional commissioner at the Baltimore City Jail who was interviewing those being adjudicated for acts of violence and homicide. It was him, me and 150 young men. There were no correctional officers in the room. We were there for hours.

From the offender’s perspective, violence was good; a useful tool to negotiate life. Violence and chaos protected them, their families and their property. Most assumed they would be dead or incarcerated by age 30.

I suggested that many (probably most) would spend decades in prison, and when asked if they would they would reconsider their criminal acts, most laughed. “You don’t understand, Mr. Sipes, we don’t have a choice. Either your crazy or you get hurt.”

I could go on endlessly with hundreds of interviews with offenders where most (all?) told me about missing fathers, preoccupied mothers, and a life where no one read to them, encouraged them or spoke about their futures. Many (most?) were either beaten, neglected and abused.

The vast majority of female offenders spoke of being sexually abused by family members or someone they knew.

Virtually all offenders could not navigate life without assistance.

Most were exposed to violence in their families, their communities, and personal lives multiple times. Most acted like war veterans with PTSD. They were direct or indirect victims of violence.

The great majority had family members in prison or who were caught up in the justice system at some point.

I am not trying to excuse criminality; I’m merely stating facts.

If you want data, see a recent article on child abuse and neglect statistics and demographics at Law Enforcement Today. 

What Happened?

When I worked street gang counseling, rehabilitation programs, or Job Corps, we were taught “reality therapy” where we didn’t delve into the past. We didn’t have the time. Our job was to give kids the opportunity to change and to provide them with a roadmap. It didn’t work for most.

On occasion, I asked “what happened” in their lives that brought them to this point. When they told me, I was aghast.

A GED and a plumbing certificate were not going to cut it for most. It would take something more, much more.

Oprah and Ten Questions

I watched “60Minutes” where Oprah Winfrey did a piece on abused kids. “O God,” I thought, “another report on social ills that doesn’t address the problem.” I was wrong.

In essence, there is a movement throughout the country where they are asking people, “what happened.” They are probing into the lives of kids and younger people to establish significant and detrimental events, with the understanding that if “what happened” couldn’t be solved, nothing would change.

See the report at CBS.

In essence, there are ten questions that probe into a person’s history. “Ten questions primarily taking a lens and looking at sort of the family home and saying to adults looking back at their childhood, “Were you physically abused? Were you neglected? Did someone go to prison?” Ten questions categorizing adversity that kids face.”

“The CDC says this isn’t theory, it’s scientific factbacked up by hundreds of published studies. And, the CDC says, one out of every eight children suffers enough trauma to cause lasting damage.”

Milwaukee Journal

The Milwaukee Journal documented this before 60 minutes.

“The primary challenge facing Milwaukee and similar high-poverty cities is not one of the usual suspects — education, crime, even the availability of jobs — although all those play a role. Instead, it is an epidemic of trauma passed from one generation to another, one neighborhood to the next.”

“Separately, statewide ACE surveys showed that nearly two-thirds of Wisconsinites who grew up with an incarcerated adult have at least three additional ACEs — landing them in the four-plus category in a state with the highest rate of black incarceration in the country, Milwaukee Journal.”

“The perpetuation of trauma has been documented in the families of those who survived the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Vietnam War and Cambodian genocide. That data has now turned up the same phenomena in families entrenched in poverty, violence and neglect.”

“The most common measure of nonmilitary trauma is a short survey of “adverse childhood experiences,” known around the world as the ACE test. The index consists of simple but intrusive yes-or-no questions: When you were growing up, did a parent or adult in the house beat you? Beat each other? Did any of them verbally or sexually abuse you? Emotionally ignore you? Were any of them alcoholics? Drug users? Incarcerated? Mentally ill?”

“Compared to someone with zero “yes” answers, a person with four or more is six times more likely to struggle with depression; seven times more likely to grow up alcoholic; 10 times more likely to inject street drugs; and 12 times more likely to attempt suicide. They’re far less likely to hold a job and more likely to end up homeless.”

A Roadmap?

When I spoke to rehabilitation specialists, I was told, “You have to stabilize the offender before you can offer programs. You have to probe deeply to uncover what happened in their lives to understand the decisions they make.”

Maybe it’s time to time to come to grips with the fact that many (most?) who enter the justice system have PTSD; they are profoundly influenced by the abuse, neglect and trauma in their lives.

Maybe prisons and jails and parole and probation agencies need to understand that dysfunctional people need to confront their past. This can be done through volunteers, group counseling, digital courses or a variety of other possibilities.

The overwhelming number of offenders continue their criminal activity and the programs that try to assist them often fail or produce very marginal results, Crime in America.

As important as vocational or educational courses or substance abuse or mental health efforts are; they will fail unless trauma is addressed.

We need to rethink the delivery of services to offenders.

Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. – Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Post-Masters’ Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University. You can contact him at [email protected].

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