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Gareth Cook

Fertile ground for crime

What’s the best age to prevent violence? Research suggests a surprising answer

By Gareth Cook
Globe Columnist / August 14, 2011

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RICHARD TREMBLAY began his crime-fighting career in the prisons. He worked with violent offenders in Montreal, but after years of effort, he took a hard look at the results, and had to conclude that he had been “not very successful.’’

So Tremblay, who is now a leading researcher of the origins of violence, left the adults and started working with juvenile delinquents. Perhaps, he reasoned, he could make more of a difference with younger people. But, years later, he couldn’t say that he was having a real impact.

So Tremblay switched to kindergartners. In the 1980s, he designed a program for troubled children and their families, which went on to great acclaim for its effectiveness in steering its charges away from the path to violence.

Yet, even with the success, Tremblay came to believe that kindergarten was still not early enough. And so he has begun looking for ways to start violence prevention at birth - or even before.

It’s a strange impulse - to see the spark of crime in babies - but Tremblay is part of small group of scholars whose ideas deserve a wider hearing. Violence has a biological basis in the brain, they argue, and so crime-fighting can be carried out in creative ways - like having nurses visit troubled young mothers-to-be - that attack crime at its source.

“The prevention of these problems needs to start as early as possible, and as early as possible is pregnancy,’’ says Tremblay.

Crime is of course a complex social problem. But crime can also be seen as a mental-health problem. And scientists are now uncovering the conditions in the brain that give crime fertile ground.

Much of the evidence points to damage in the brain’s emotional circuits, most likely in the first years of life. A recent survey published in he journal Aggression and Violent Behavior identified links between the environment a baby experiences, even before he or she is born, and later violence.

For example, one study reported twice as much violence among adults whose mothers smoked at least 20 cigarettes a day while pregnant, and the levels of violence rose with the number of cigarettes. A separate study indicated that inadequate nutrition at age three predicted aggressive, antisocial, or hyperactive behavior more than 10 years later. Also intriguing is research which hints at links between the pregnant mother’s psychological state - such as depression or stress - and the later well-being of the child.

It’s challenging work, with many unanswered questions, and debate over which factors will prove most important, according to the University of Pennsylvania’s Jianghong Liu, the author of the survey.

But it has been clear for more than a decade that simple interventions, staged early, can have an impact on crime. In the 1970s, University of Colorado at Denver professor David Olds designed an innovative program in which nurses visited expectant and new mothers. Fifteen years after the visits, the children were substantially less likely to be arrested or convicted of a crime than those whose mothers had not been in the program. They smoked less than their peers and drank less. (The program has evolved into the Nurse-Family Partnership, a national nonprofit.)

Helping at this crucial moment in a person’s life is clearly something the government should be doing more of. One RAND study suggested the Olds approach could save as much as $4 in government spending for every dollar it cost.

The work by Olds, Tremblay, and others also suggests a new way of tackling society’s crime problem. We have known for decades that crime tends to run in families, that dysfunction is handed down from generation to generation.

But, Tremblay observes, the single person in the situation who can make the biggest difference is the mother. By providing troubled young women the tools they need to raise a well-adjusted child, the cycle of crime could stop.

We focus our attention on the young men. It’s the young women who hold the future in their hands.

Gareth Cook can be reached at cook@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @garethideas.