Juvenile delinquency is like quicksand; the deeper you sink, the harder it is to escape. Tina Maschi, Ph.D., is interested in finding the most effective means of pulling young people out before it’s too late.
The assistant professor of social work studies how the effects of childhood trauma can increase a young person’s odds of engaging in criminal behavior, especially among young males. Knowing the cause, Maschi said, helps structure the proper intervention.
“Not every traumatized child ends up engaging in delinquent behavior, but the empirical literature shows a link between trauma and delinquency,” she said. “Witnessing violence or being a victim of violence, as well as a range of stressful life events such as moving, failing in school or losing a loved one, are all forms of trauma.”
Male youth commit about 84 percent of violent crimes in the United States, Maschi said, but an often-ignored fact is that boys are also by far (70 percent) the victims of violence. In a recent article for the Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, Maschi and colleague Carolyn Bradley, Ph.D., assistant professor at Monmouth University, explored the influence of delinquent peer groups on boys who had experienced trauma.
The study looked at data on 2,065 males from the ages of 12 to 17 and documented the relationship between trauma, anger, violence and delinquent peers in fostering criminal behavior. What stood out, said Maschi, were two trends: the role that a child’s anger played in violent offenses and the role that delinquent peers played in property offenses.
“We have the difference between anger, which is an internalized emotion often in response to a negative event, leading to violence. If a person is angry, he or she may have unresolved business and then be more likely to act out with violence or other kids of offending actions.
“Whereas, with property offending, it’s often social [peer]pressure. When a young person is around other delinquent peers, he/she is at greater risk of becoming delinquent,” she said.
Increasingly, the fields of criminology and social work are converging with regard to research on children and crime. Criminology traditionally focuses on the causes and consequences of crime, leading to legislative regulation or other recommendations for deterrence. Social work focuses on prevention and intervention.
“For the longest time, the social work profession seemed to disown delinquency as an issue,” Maschi said. “In the past many social work researchers did not bother submitting research about juvenile delinquency to social work journals because they were told, ‘send it to a criminology journal instead.’ That is changing.”
The change suggests that more evidence is becoming available to support the need for social workers to take an active role in early prevention and intervention.
Maschi recently wrote for the Journal of Social Work on telltale signs of rule breaking and aggression in young children who had experienced maltreatment. Even if a parent comes before the child welfare system for child maltreatment, she explained, it is not federally mandated that the child who has been harmed receive social services.
“But maybe these kids do need services,” she added, saying that the research was “building a case that delinquency prevention through child welfare is a social work issue.
“We have a two-pronged mission,” Maschi said. “One, to help increase well being, health, and mental health of vulnerable populations. And then to help increase social justice or empowerment outcomes for our clients.”
For six years, Maschi worked as a counselor in the New Jersey Training School for Boys and New Jersey State Prison in Jamesburg, a medium-security facility for serious offenders between the ages of 15 to 18. “Training school,” Maschi said, was a nice term for prison. There, she cut her teeth on the real world of young criminals.
“It’s unbelievable what some of these inmates had gone through,” recalled Maschi, “such as being young children and watching their parents shooting up, not knowing what the act meant at the time but later in life figuring it out. Or kids dealing with crises through self-mutiliation—in some instances cutting their own arms with razor blades.”
While at Jamesburg, Maschi came to understand the positive impact of the arts—including music, painting and “graffiti therapy”—as an intervention for troubled youth. A singer and drummer herself, she witnessed how creative expression could change a person’s life.
“Many of them were talented artists,” she said. “In a prison setting, where everybody knows what you do . . . it was about helping them find the personal license to be creative.”
Maschi’s experience with using the arts to subvert self-destructive urges inspired her. Today, she leads recreational drumming workshops for all ages. She owns 25 to 30 congas, djembes and doumbeks, plus a host of percussion instruments, and she uses them in a two-hour “I We Rhythm” program for recreational drumming.
Last year, Maschi did a pilot study on the effects of drumming therapy on stress reduction. She found that such community drumming can change participants’ energy levels, their sense of empowerment and their connectedness to other people.
“It would be my hope that these kinds of activities using the creative arts, particularly music and the use of drums, would be kinds of interventions that can be implemented,” she said.
This fall, Maschi and a team of graduate students will venture back into the New Jersey prisons to begin a longitudinal study on trauma and criminality across the lifespan. The research team will conduct case-record reviews and in-person interviews with 300 male and female prisoners, aged 18 to 24 and 55 and older, all of whom have a history of juvenile or adult offending. Her goal is to develop trauma-focused services that account for a person’s age, gender and cultural background.
“Among the older adults with histories of trauma in prison, we have a group of people who have lived an entire life,” Maschi said. “They have the wisdom of so many years of talking about the delinquency process, I really want to capture that narrative.
“But I also want to capture the youth experience going forward in time,” she added, “because prison itself can also be a trauma.”