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Adverse Childhood Experiences Lead to Increased Police Contact for Adolescents, Study Shows

Children who have accumulated three or more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) in early childhood are twice as likely to be stopped by police by age 14 than those without an ACE, says a new study published in Pediatrics.

The paper shows a general trend that the greater number of ACEs a child is exposed to, the more likely the child is to have police contact and to be warned or arrested by the police rather than simply stopped and questioned.  

Jason Nagata, MD, Assistant Professor of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at UCSF and co-author of the study, says that few studies have examined the link between ACEs and juvenile justice contact in adolescence, particularly police contact.

“ACEs can drastically change a child’s future life course,” says Nagata. “Increased police contact during adolescence is one manifestation of that altered life course.”

The paper uses a unique dataset that has followed its participants from infancy through adolescence in the UK, where no study on this subject has been performed. From this national dataset, Nagata and his co-authors* were able to analyze differences in adolescent behavior based on experiences at ages 5 and 7.

Long-term consequences of ACEs

Nagata has extensively researched how ACEs can drastically alter a child’s behavior and health later in life. His previous work has shown that ACEs can detrimentally affect future cardiovascular health, cognitive function, substance use and lifestyle behaviors.

“In children and adolescents, traumatic experiences can give rise to significant adversity and toxic stress that can lead to disrupted development and long-lasting health issues,” says Nagata.

Externalizing behaviors such as conduct problems, hyperactivity, substance use and school disengagement are associated with ACE exposure and offer potential reasons why ACEs lead to increased police contact.

Criminal justice contact in adulthood, including arrests and incarceration, has also been shown by Nagata and co-authors to increase with ACE exposure. This recent study adds to that research by showing that the increased police contact occurs even during adolescence.

“Our study suggests early interventions targeting ACEs may help reduce youths’ later exposure to police stops,” says lead author Dylan Jackson, PhD, Assistant Professor at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Translating research into improved care

With research continuing to show that mental and physical health are impacted by ACEs and other life factors like food and housing insecurity, pediatricians are increasingly screening for these issues in their routine checks.

However, it’s crucial that the growing understanding and additional screening leads to improved health outcomes for adolescents and children facing these significant difficulties. Access to behavioral and mental health specialists for children, for example, can help mitigate the troublesome, externalized behaviors that frequently arise with an accumulation of ACEs and the associated chronic, toxic stress.

The fact remains that the life course and health of those exposed to ACEs varies much from individual to individual. Nagata says that his future research will examine what factors promote resilience among adolescents with ACEs so they can be leveraged in hospitals, schools and communities.

With this new addition to his growing body of research on the detrimental and long-lasting effects of ACEs, Nagata says he’s confident that pediatricians are making strides to improve care for these vulnerable individuals through early interventions and preventive care.


*Co-authors: Dylan B. Jackson, Johns Hopkins University; Monique Jindal, University of Illinois Chicago; Alexander Testa, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston; Kyle T. Ganson, University of Toronto; Rebecca Fix, Johns Hopkins University.