Research Proposal: Juvenile Delinquency and the Social and Home Environment: Girls

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Introduction

There is no one path to juvenile delinquency, nor is there one perfect storm of factors that will absolutely ensure that a child does (or does not) become a juvenile delinquent. It is generally accepted within the research community, however, that early experiences strongly shape an individual’s behavior for years to come, and delinquent behavior is no exception to this rule. Thus, this research proposal focuses on environmental factors that a child experiences, and how those factors are related to juvenile delinquency.

A study of the environmental factors correlated with juvenile delinquency—and the extent of such correlation—is particularly important because delinquent behaviors that emerge during childhood typically continue to manifest (and usually worsen) as a child enters adolescent and adult years (Walters, 1998). This proposal examines the existing research on these factors and the current understanding of the complex relationship between the environment and juvenile delinquency. It then proposes to study a group typically ignored in this context: females. By better understanding the impact of the environment on female juvenile delinquents, this research can fill a gap in existing knowledge, which can ultimately better isolate the causes of delinquent behavior and eliminate or mitigate its effects.

Literature Review

This literature review examines existing research on factors in the home and social environments that are correlated with (and thus predictive of) juvenile delinquency. Over the past several decades, increases in reported juvenile delinquency have encouraged researchers to seek a deeper understanding of the phenomenon, including by studying those environmental factors in a child’s life which are correlated with such delinquency. Studies have speculated about which environmental factors—social, home-related, and otherwise—are predictive of juvenile delinquency, with a moderate body of literature substantiating some of these hypotheses. Generally, the home environment is most influential in shaping behavior in the earlier years of development, while the social environment becomes more influential (and the home environment correspondingly less influential) as a child enters adolescence (Loeber, Farrington, & Petechuk, 2003).

According to Walters (1998), young children often display problem behaviors if stressful or traumatic events are present in their environment. They will mimic what they see, and this early behavior is predictive of behavior in the future. Indeed, Walters (1998) found that, once adolescents have had the time to reflect upon traumatic events from earlier in life, they have an increased likelihood of acting out as a means of coping with this past trauma. Thus, the passage of time exacerbates the problem, rather than mitigating it.

Loeber et al. (2003) found that poor parenting early on remains a moderate predictor of delinquent behavior in adolescence, although poor parenting during childhood is more predictive of delinquent behavior in childhood, and poor parenting during adolescence is more predictive of delinquent behavior during adolescence. However, the impact of childhood experience upon delinquent behavior throughout adolescence (and indeed, throughout life) should not be underestimated. Indeed, Walters (1998) identified the presence of “maintaining” factors later in life such as substance use, which continues to fuel delinquent behavior beyond childhood. These factors are more likely to be present during adolescence if they were present during childhood. That is, if an individual is involved in delinquent behavior early on, this creates patterns, as the more often delinquent behavior is engaged in, the more likely it is to recur. Thus, the factors that initially make a child more likely to engage in delinquent behaviors also continue to render that individual more at risk, as such behavior becomes ritualistic and learned.

Happily, focus on this subject has resulted in multiple experiments. Because there have been so many, recent meta-analyses are helpful and instructive for identifying and summarizing trends in the research. Derzon’s (2005) meta-analysis considered home environment factors that are correlated with juvenile delinquency. He, like Loeber, et al. (2003) found that parent behavior is an incredibly significant influence upon such factors. Derzon (2005) identified parent education and expectations, home discord and stability, and parents' child-rearing skills as the family factors most closely correlated with juvenile delinquency. Similarly, Shader (2003) identified poor parenting skills—which often related to home discord, child maltreatment, and antisocial parents—as risk factors. Poor parenting predictive of delinquency often included aggressive and physically abusive parent behavior, including corporal punishment (Shader, 2003). Perhaps surprisingly, once other socioeconomic factors are controlled for, the increased prevalence of juvenile delinquency in populations of lower socioeconomic status is minimized.

Socially, Shader (2003) and others identified membership in a delinquent peer group as highly correlated with juvenile delinquency in an individual. This includes the presence of antisocial peers. The more time spent with influential peers, particularly as opposed to peers who do not engage in delinquent behavior, the more likely an individual juvenile is to engage in such behavior. Similarly, Shader (2003) found that, though the relationship is less well-established, the higher the levels of poverty and crime in a neighborhood, the more likely a child who grows up in that neighborhood is to engage in delinquent behavior.

Limited research has been done on the role—if any—of gender in the relationship of environment to juvenile delinquency. Most of the existing research targeting particular genders has focused upon male juveniles. The little research that has focused on gender differences and juvenile delinquency was conducted by VanHulle, D'Onfrio, Rodgers, Waldman, & Lahey (2007). That study, which focused on siblings, sought to understand if girls or boys were more prone to delinquent behavior. It found that environmental influences have less effect on girls. This raises concern, however, that juvenile delinquency in girls will continue to be ignored, and studies will instead continue to focus on boys or not meaningfully consider gender.

Thus, this research proposal will focus on the home environment during the childhood years, as this has generally been identified as more influential on later behavior than the social environment at the same stage. Moreover, it will explore the role of gender in these home environment factors—as opposed to in the juvenile delinquents themselves. That is, it will focus upon female subjects, and will study subject responses to poor parenting in the home environment. Specifically, it will try to determine whether there is a relationship between the gender of an aggressive/violent parent and juvenile delinquency in females.

Research Question

Are female subjects more or less likely to exhibit juvenile delinquency depending on the gender of an aggressive/violent parent present in the home environment during childhood, assuming a two-parent household and assuming that the other parent is non-violent?

Hypothesis

I hypothesize a relationship between the gender of a violent/aggressive parent and juvenile delinquency in girls. Specifically, I hypothesize that juvenile delinquency is more likely present in females exposed to a violent/aggressive father than a violent/aggressive mother.

Theory

This research proposal—and the literature review that informs it—is focused on the microsocial factors of home (family) and social (peer) environments. It ignores individual factors and macrosocial factors (such as socioeconomic status), in large part because the literature indicates that microsocial factors are the most susceptible to influence by intervention programs seeking to reduce juvenile delinquency. It is somewhat challenging to hypothesize about the answer to the research question, given that most existing research isolating gender has focused upon males. Even more novel is this study’s isolation of gender in the independent variable of parent behavior. After determining whether there is a relationship between gender in a violent/aggressive parent and juvenile delinquency in girls, later research could elaborate upon the nature of that relationship, and could also replicate the experiment with boys, and compare the results.

The hypothesis is based upon the basic Freudian and Oedipal psychological principles of inherent conflict and discord between mothers and daughters and inherent trust between fathers and daughters. Based upon these principles—which this experiment might help substantiated or refute—girls will be more likely to imitate a violent father than a violent mother, and more likely to reject the behavior of a violent mother than a violent father.

Methods

Methods of Data Collection. Longitudinal studies are best-suited for studying juvenile delinquency. Indeed, nearly all of the non-meta-analytical research that exists in this area was conducted using a longitudinal model. The drawback of longitudinal studies is the amount of time they take to complete: typically years, and even decades. In order to meaningfully consider the impact of different variables and to test a large enough sample to produce a statistically meaningful result, an enormous investment of resources is required.

This research proposal aims to adjust for that by recruiting subjects to self- report, and not attempting to over-standardize the violent/aggressive parent factor. In an initial intake survey, subjects will be asked a series of questions about whether their mother or father exhibited any of ten behaviors classified as violent or aggressive, and give a numerical score of how often. Each variable will have a predetermined weight based upon its severity (which will not be disclosed to the subject). Based upon their responses, subjects with one parent with a significant score on the “aggression continuum,” and the other parent with an insignificant score will be asked to continue on the study. This avoids the need to study a subject during childhood, and continue on into adolescence. Indeed, self-reporting will be at least as accurate as any other method of collecting this data, as real-time self-reporting by children is more likely to be lacking in veracity, and it would be difficult for performing live research to observe aggressive/violent behaviors in parents who might modify their behavior when they knew a researcher was watching.

Variables/Conceptualization

Measurements. Measurements will be self-reported. Girls from two-parent households between the ages of 13 and 15 will be recruited from schools in urban areas throughout the American northeast. They will be offered $50 to take an initial anonymous research survey. The first survey will ask about experiences during childhood and ask questions to score whether the child had one aggressive/violent parent in the home, along with another non-aggressive/non-violent parent. The survey will also determine if that violent parent was male or female. Participants who grew up in a two-parent household with one violent parent and one non-violent parent will be asked to continue in the study. Those who continue in the study will complete an additional survey every two months for one year. Participants will repeatedly be assured of the anonymity of their responses and will be compensated $40 per survey for their participation. The surveys will ask about delinquent behavior, and how many times during the previous two months the participant has engaged in various delinquent acts. Each of the acts will also have numerical value based upon severity, and a total delinquency score will be calculated as a function of severity and frequency of the behavior over the course of the entire year of the study.

Sampling Technique. The research sample will be taken in New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. This will allow the study to target areas with similar economic demographics while controlling for variables such as ethnicity. Beyond this, it will be random, sampling public school students who are female between 13 and 15 years old, all of whom were raised in a two-parent household where one parent was aggressive/violent and the other was not.

Analytic Strategy

The data will be analyzed by conducting two regression analyses. Each will plot the violent parent’s score on the “aggression continuum” (the independent variable under the hypotheses) on the X-axis, and plot the subjects’ delinquency score (considered the dependent variable under the hypothesis) on the Y-axis. One analysis will be conducted for the subjects with violent/aggressive mothers, and a separate analysis will be conducted for the subjects with violent/aggressive fathers. These analyses will then be compared to see if there is a significant interaction between covariates. A statistically significant covariate interaction of any nature will confirm the hypothesis, demonstrating that there is likely a relationship between the gender of a violent/aggressive parent and the prevalence of juvenile delinquent behavior in girls. A stronger correlation between violence/aggression in a female parent and juvenile delinquent behavior will further confirm the hypothesis that aggressive/violent female parents are more likely to produce juvenile delinquency in daughters. The opposite finding will refute this element of the hypothesis, and also pave the way for future study.

References

Derzon, J. H. (2005). Family features and problem, aggressive, criminal, or violent behavior: A meta-analytic inquiry. Unpublished manuscript. Calverton, MD: Pacific Institutes for Research and Evaluation.

Loeber, R., Farrington, D., & Petechuk, D.. 2003. Child delinquency: Early intervention and prevention. Child Delinquency: Bulletin Series.Washington DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Shader, M. 2003. Risk factors for delinquency: An overview. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Van Hulle, C. A., D'Onfrio, B. M., Rodgers, J. L., Waldman, I. D., & Lahey, B. B. (2007). Sex differences in the causes of self-Reported adolescent delinquency. Journal Of Abnormal Psychology, 116(2), 236-248.

Walters, G. (1998). Lives of crime and drugs: Intervening with substance-abusing offenders. New York: John Wiley & Sons.