UK: Does Child Abuse cause Crime?

Last Updated: 20 November 2007
Article by Peter Garsden

Does Child Abuse cause Crime?

  • The National Fire Service were very concerned to discover, that a large proportion of those who commit arson in this country were the former victims of child abuse; so much so that they asked the organisation I helped found in 1998 – Association of Child Abuse Lawyers, for special training.
  • Many convicted paedophiles were abused in childhood, but there are no statistics to suggest that abuse in childhood leads to sex offending in later life.

These bland statistics, however, belie the subtlety of the subject as I will go on to illustrate.

People with previous criminal convictions are invariably precluded from making claims for Criminal Injuries Compensation on the grounds that active criminals who take from the system should not be allowed to profit from it. Daily Mail readers no doubt sympathise with this view. I get very angry, however, when the same rule is used to deny compensation to the victims of child abuse when it can be proved by psychological evidence that there is a link between the abuse and the subsequent life of crime.

Sex Offender Attacks

It is easy to see that the prisoner who commits a serious crime of violence against a child sex offender is motivated by anger and rage against this type of individual. Most prisoners detest child molesters per se. When he/she is a survivor of childhood sex abuse, then it is even easier to see that he/she is trying to hurt the type of person who hurt him/her so badly in childhood.

What about the victim of child abuse who hunts down his/her abuser in later life and either seriously maims him/her or commits murder. The law of the jungle would say that justice has been done. Our civilised judicial system, however, will give a life sentence even with mitigating circumstances. The number of child abuse clients of my firm who have at least contemplated such an act is quite high. The feelings are quite understandable.

Whilst we are usually dealing with abuse, which took place in institutions in quite extreme cases, national statistics tell us that 1 in 4 adults in this country are the victims of abuse in childhood, which includes, of course, bullying at home or school.

Why does it happen?

So how does abuse make survivors feel? Angry, depressed, unloved, abandoned, betrayed, neglected, undeserving of attention to name a few of the typical feelings. So do these feelings lead to a life of crime?

Generally speaking the child does not realise how wrong the abuse is at the time. Indeed he/she may have enjoyed it physically. It does not take long, however, to start feeling angry. Unfortunately the anger has nowhere to go and turns inwards. Obviously the hurt child has no one to tell. Usually they have been blackmailed into silence by their abuser or have complained and been ignored. So the child does not care any more, and wants to kick out at the establishment for letting it happen in the first place, even more so if he/she was in care at the time.

Once at the age of 17/18 drink and drugs are used to numb the hurt feelings, nightmares, and daytime flashbacks. Drink and drugs are well known to lead to crime, not only because benefit does not pay for heroin and burglary does. Once hooked onto drugs the crimes to support the habit continue. Inevitably, prison results eventually.

The CICA argue that, the further away from the abuse the crimes are committed, the less likely there is to be a connection. To me, crime starts for reasons connected with the pubescent abuse, and becomes a way of life. Thus, there is a link.


In any situation, in later life, the inner anger most child abuse survivors feel towards their abuser, who as likely as not has never been caught, can surface when triggered, and result in a crime of violence. The victim can be anyone who challenges the survivor, and attempts to render them powerless. The reason is, that this experience is a repetition of the powerless feelings of domination by an abuser. Tragically, the survivor often does not even realise what is motivating him/her. Thus he/she does not inform his/her solicitor and the crime appears to be motiveless. Thus the sentence is more severe. Those that do realise the problem, often are too embarrassed or afraid of making a disclosure.

Dismissal from employment is not a crime per se, but arguments with bosses are commonplace for a victim of abuse. Once again a representative of authority is in a position of power. If the decision affecting the victim appears to be unfair, then this triggers feelings of powerlessness, and a violent argument may result. In a good case the outcome is dismissal, and in a bad case assault.


When I was representing criminals in the 1980’s including juveniles, I had no idea what was going on in the care homes we were sending them to. I also had no idea what the motives were for ostensibly meaningless crimes. Had I had the foresight then, that I have now, I would have approached the cases very differently. Whilst we no longer do criminal work, awareness and sensitivity is essential.

I suspect, though I do not know, that many residents of our custodial institutions are the victims of abuse in childhood, and that lack of care in infancy is responsible for the two fingers to the establishment attitude, which is so common. Thankfully, however, some prisons have awareness and make treatment available, but only for those who are brave enough to disclosure. How many others are there who, quite understandably, keep their past a secret? The containment of memories of past abuse is like having fire in ice inside you.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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