, Volume 30, Issue 3, pp 181-195
Date: 11 Nov 2012

The Youngest Victims of Violence: Examining the Mental Health Needs of Young Children Who Are Involved in the Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice Systems

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Abstract

Children placed in the state’s custody due to neglect, abuse or maltreatment are one of America’s most vulnerable populations. Seventy-five percent of child victims of maltreatment are under the age of 12. Not only is their suffering a problem, these children are also at increased risk for delinquent behavior later in life. While research has documented the potential long-term consequences of child abuse and neglect, the mental health needs of young children involved in the foster care and juvenile justice systems have been largely overlooked. This study examined the social, emotional and behavioral difficulties of 670 children, age 3–11, who were involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Children in this study were living in residential treatment facilities, group homes, foster care homes or were receiving intensive home-based services. To assess the children’s mental health needs caregivers completed the parent form of the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (Goodman, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 38:581–586, 1997). The findings indicated a high prevalence of mental health problems, with 81 % of the children in the sample having a total difficulties score in the borderline or abnormal range and 90 % of the children having borderline or abnormal scores on at least one of the subscales (conduct, emotional, peer or attention problems). When characteristics such as gender, race and age were considered significant differences were found among boys and girls, Caucasian and minority children, and age groups. The findings highlight the importance of mental health assessment and interventions that are gender and culturally sensitive and developmentally appropriate.