Learning from the road well travelled: The impact of chronic childhood maltreatment on brain development and function as a contributor to future criminal recidivism

Author: Bonnie Martin-Giles

Martin-Giles, Bonnie, 2016 Learning from the road well travelled: The impact of chronic childhood maltreatment on brain development and function as a contributor to future criminal recidivism, Flinders University, School of Social and Policy Studies

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From a social work perspective, this thesis is focused on the possible contributions of neuroscience knowledge to rehabilitation interventions within Australia’s criminal justice system. The dominance of neoliberalism throughout the western world has seen governments responding to criminal recidivism with increasing punity by adopting ‘tough on crime’ measures. Within the rehabilitation programs that exist, there can be a dominance of models such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Additionally there are clear systemic barriers that impact on the availability and access to correctional rehabilitation programs, including long waiting lists for entry into available programs, relevant programs not being available in all jurisdictions across Australia, and strict eligibility requirements for entry into rehabilitation programs. As such, the relatively high rates of reoffending in Australia signal that correctional programs may not be fulfilling a primary purpose of our justice system, which is rehabilitation.

Evolution of medical and imaging technology has provided neuroscientists with the opportunity to significantly improve knowledge of the intricate workings of the human brain. Increasingly neuroscientists are uncovering not only the unique plasticity of the brain that allows it to adapt and compensate as a result of trauma or injury, but also the extreme sensitivity of the brain to external environment and experiences. However, whilst this knowledge has existed within the neuroscience field, its application to social work and social policy at a practical level appears to be limited. Is there a place for this knowledge about the brain to contribute to addressing our understanding of offending behaviour? If so, what form would it take?

The central question of this thesis is whether existing neuroscientific research evidence supports the idea that chronic childhood maltreatment has a physiological impact on the developing brain, thereby placing individuals at greater risk of engaging in recidivistic offending in adulthood. Given the high incarceration rates within Australian prisons, can extrapolating neuroscience knowledge into correctional programs better accommodate and rehabilitate these populations to reduce the human, social, and economic costs of criminal recidivism within Australia? This question has been investigated through the combination of systematic reviews of the existing research literature combined with critical discourse analysis of offender rehabilitation policies and programs in Australia.

A finding of this research is that with increased financial backing and a renewed scientific focus on understanding the complex workings of the brain, there is now a growing body of neuroscience research that provides evidence that the experience of chronic childhood maltreatment can indeed result in marked alterations in the structure and function of the developing brain. There also exists a body of research from criminology and social work that links the experience of chronic childhood maltreatment with engaging in offending behaviour. It is apparent however that despite obvious parallels uncovered by these separate disciplines their pathways rarely intersect. There are arguments that as a discipline social work has been reluctant to incorporate advances in neuroscience knowledge into its theory and practice, in part due to continuing binary arguments between empirical science and interpretive practice, as well as the quest to avoid biological reductionism. Similar positions are evident in the field of criminology where there is a distrust of biological knowledge in explanatory theories largely as a result of the historical use of biological discourse to justify oppressive regimes.

The thesis concludes that there is a case to incorporate understandings of neuroscience within correctional programs, and that there are possibilities for incorporating new models of offender rehabilitation that acknowledge the potential existence of alterations in the structure and function of the brain for individuals who have experienced chronic childhood maltreatment, particularly in terms of difficulties in emotion and behavioural regulation and deficits in learning and cognition. There appears to be evidence that the use of CBT, which dominates current correctional rehabilitation programs in Australia, may not be effective for individuals who experience difficulties in emotion and behavioural regulation and deficits in learning and cognition as a result of chronic childhood maltreatment. These understandings inform somatic therapy as a relatively new avenue within which neuroscience can contribute to offender rehabilitation, given its focus on therapeutic activities that facilitate the regulatory processes in the brain that become disrupted by experiences of prolonged trauma.

One of the foundational principles of social work in being able to intervene at the intersecting points of individuals and their environment is that there needs to be acknowledgment that people both influence and are influenced by their surrounding environment in a bidirectional flow. Given the apparent connection between experiences of childhood maltreatment and offending behaviour, the social work profession has the capacity to advocate for stable and supportive environments for children at risk of experiencing chronic childhood maltreatment, thereby interrupting the potential maltreatment/offending cycle.

That said the contribution of neurobiology to understandings of offending behaviour does not exclude the importance of understanding the various societal, economic and social pressures that also contribute to offending behaviour. Rather, this thesis examines whether these various intersecting threads can in fact be woven together to create greater understanding of how pernicious environments and experiences interact with brain development in such a way as to predispose some individuals to engage in crime. As such, this thesis asks whether this knowledge would place social work in a stronger position to be able to implement interventions that will be more effective in meeting the needs of clients both at an individual and structural level.

As findings in this thesis show, social work is in the unique position of being able to advocate for the sharing of knowledge between the natural sciences and the social sciences in order to positively influence the outcomes for individuals who have experienced chronic childhood maltreatment and who have subsequently become ensnared in a downward spiral of repeat offending and incarceration.

Keywords: Child abuse Child maltreatment Neuroscience Brain Development Criminal recidivism Interdisciplinary knowledge

Subject: Social Work thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2016
School: School of Social and Policy Studies
Supervisor: Dr Fiona Verity