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Delinquent Youth at High Risk for Violent Death

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June 7, 2005

Plagued by a high rate of homicides, America’s delinquent youth, a group largely composed of poor racial and ethnic minorities, are four times more likely to die – and if they are girls, eight times more likely – than their peers in the general population, according to a study by Northwestern University researchers.

The study, which was published in the June issue of the journal Pediatrics, considers violent death a major public health threat for America’s troubled young people.

“We need to get away from the stereotype that delinquent youth are just bad kids and focus on them as a group of young people who are especially vulnerable to early and violent deaths,” said the study’s lead investigator Linda A. Teplin, Owen L. Coon Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and director of the Psycho-legal Studies Program at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“All the young people in our study had at least one encounter with the juvenile justice system,” said Teplin. “And that means there were opportunities to intervene.”

The study is the first significant effort in more than 60 years to provide a detailed analysis of death rates among juvenile delinquents. Much has changed in the past six decades. Racial and ethnic minorities now represent two thirds of juvenile detainees, and females account for 28 percent of juvenile arrests.

Teplin and colleagues followed 1,829 youths (1,172 males and 657 females), some for more than eight years, who between the ages of 10 and 18 came through Chicago’s Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. More than half of those tracked were African-American; almost a third were Hispanic; and about 16 percent were non-Hispanic white.

As of March 2004, 65 of the youths had died, almost all in a violent manner. Homicides -- murders that usually involved guns -- accounted for 90 percent of the deaths, while encounters with law enforcement (technically known as death by “legal intervention”) claimed another 5 percent. Other causes of death included suicides and car accidents.

Overall, the death rate among the delinquent youths was four times higher than that in youth in the general population. Moreover, the death rate was three times higher than the rate recoded in a 1940 study that previously had been viewed as the reference point for death rates in this group.

Teplin and colleagues were particularly concerned that the 14 deaths among female delinquents translated into a death rate that is eight times higher than that in the general population of young girls. Previous studies have either excluded female delinquents or not included enough young girls to make meaningful observations.

In addition, there was a disproportionate number of minorities both in the study group and among those who died. Almost all of the deaths recorded by the investigators involved African-American or Hispanic youth, who accounted for 56 (30 and 26, respectively) of the 65 fatalities.

“We need to address early violent death as aggressively as any other health disparity,” Teplin said.

“Compared to non-Hispanic whites, minorities have a much greater risk for early violent death. We also see minorities over-represented in the justice system. For example, more than 25 percent of low-income urban African-American youth have been arrested by age 18,” Teplin noted.

Teplin also said that the study is yet another warning sign that homicide is a major health risk to young people in general. Homicides have the grim distinction of being the only major cause of childhood death to increase in the past 30 years.

But, she said, homicides have become such a common feature in the lives of inner-city youth that they rarely get much attention, particularly when they involve what society considers “troubled kids.”

“Ironically, the 52 children who died in school shooting between 1990 and 2000 received far more attention than the far greater number of homicides involving inner-city youth,” Teplin said.

“Although urban violence may no longer be considered newsworthy, the health professions must address the equally tragic, if less dramatic, daily violence that disproportionately affects urban youth in general and delinquent youth in particular, Teplin said.

Teplin’s co-researchers on this study were Gary M. McClelland; research assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Feinberg; Karen M. Abram, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Feinberg; and Darinka Mileusnic, M.D., formerly of the Cook County Office of the Medical Examiner, Chicago.

This study was supported by grants RO1MH54197 and RO1MH59463 from the National Institute of Mental Health; grant 1999-JE-FX-1001 from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention; major funding by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; and grants from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the William T. Grant Foundation; and a consortium of other agencies.