Juvenile offenders at risk to die earlyStudy finds high mortality rate
Monday, June 06, 2005
by Meg McSherry Breslin
Young people who enter the juvenile justice system are four times more likely to suffer an early violent death than youths in the general population, says a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.
The study's lead author said the statistics her team uncovered on youth in the Cook County juvenile detention system are a sad statement on the violence many poor and minority children confront.
"We need to get away from the stereotype that delinquent youths are just bad kids," said Linda Teplin, a professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University. "They are a group of young people who are especially vulnerable to early and violent deaths."
One alarming finding is that delinquent girls are eight times more likely to die than girls in the general population.
Teplin's team has been conducting a large-scale study of juvenile delinquents since 1995 and didn't plan to analyze death rates initially. But when so many youths they were following died, the team quickly took notice.
"Our first death occurred within the first year of the study, and people were shocked," Teplin said. "But as the deaths rose, I realized there was a story to be told here because no one studies these kids. ... They study recidivism in delinquent kids, but very few people look at the health needs of these high-risk kids."
Researchers followed 1,829 youths who were randomly sampled after passing through the intake department of the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. Some youths were followed for as long as eight years; some had as few as one juvenile charge.
The majority of the study's subjects are minorities: 55 percent African-American and 28 percent Hispanic. Roughly 16 percent are white.
The ongoing study is funded by a range of federal agencies and foundations, including the National Institute of Mental Health and the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. It is the most comprehensive attempt in more than 60 years to pinpoint death rates among juvenile delinquents, Teplin said.
Leaders in violence prevention say the study is a wakeup call to the needs of a wide swath of poor and minority youths. Delinquent African-American males in the study had the highest mortality figures. Of the 65 youths who died in the follow-up period, 23 were African-American males. The next highest rate was for Hispanic males, with 21 deaths. The mortality rates for delinquent youths were compared with youths in the general Cook County population who were similar in gender, age, and race or ethnicity.
"This should be recognized and used as a red flag not to body-slam these [delinquent] kids but to give them some services and some protective factors," said Carl Bell, a child psychiatrist and president of the Chicago Community Mental Health Council.
Ninety percent of the youths who died were victims of homicide, mostly gunshot wounds, a fact that caught the attention of Dr. Katherine Kaufer Christoffel, a Children's Memorial Hospital research professor who has led physician efforts against gun violence.
"There's such a high percentage of minority children who wind up in criminal justice," she said. "And we tend to think of other people being vulnerable to them. But the fact that they are so vulnerable themselves has not been sufficiently emphasized."
Judge Patricia Martin Bishop, presiding judge of Cook County Circuit Court's Child Protection Division, said Teplin's research should force some discussions among court officials. "This surprises me tremendously, and it's also depressing," she said.