Incidence of police contact amongst children with emerging mental health problems: a longitudinal school-entry record-linkage study

Professor Kimberlie Dean1,2, Dr  Tyson Whitten1,3, Dr  Stacy Tzoumakis1,4, Associate Professor Kristin R. Laurens1,5, Ms Felicity Harris1, Professor Vaughan J. Carr1,6,7, Professor  Melissa Green1,6

1School of Psychiatry, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, 2Justice Health and Forensic Mental Health Network, Sydney, Australia, 3School of Social Sciences, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia, 4School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Griffith University, Southport, Australia, 5School of Psychology and Counselling, and Institute for Biomedical Innovation, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia, 6Neuroscience Research Australia, Sydney, Australia, 7Department of Psychiatry, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia



In adolescence and adulthood, mental illness is well known to be associated with an increased risk of criminal justice contact, including contact with police, but whether the association is also important in earlier life is unknown.


In a sample of 79,801 children entering their first year of full-time schooling (average age 5 years) in New South Wales in 2009, emotional and behavioural problems, along with previously established profiles of developmental risk using data from the Australian Early Development Census, were examined in relation to subsequent contact with police using survival analysis of the period following school entry up to age 13 years.


An association between childhood emotional/behavioural problems, developmental risk, and contact with the police was confirmed. Amongst children with at least one police contact, almost one-third had been identified as having emotional/behavioural problems at school entry. Rates of police contact for the full range of reasons (as a person-of interest, victim, witness) were all increased for children with identified emotional/behavioural problems, as well as for those with particular developmental risk profiles (particularly those in with the ‘pervasive’ risk profile). Key differences were identified when the relationship was examined separately for boys and girls, and when rates of police contact were calculated in relation to sociodemographic covariates.


The results of this study have implications for understanding risk of early criminal justice contact, an outcome known to be a strong marker for long-term adversity across educational, occupational, health and justice domains. Interventions intended to reduce risk of early justice contact need to consider children with developmental vulnerabilities, including but not limited to emotional/behavioural problems, and may need to target boys and girls differently.


Prof. Kimberlie Dean is the Chair of Forensic Mental Health and Acting Head of School in the School of Psychiatry at UNSW. She is also a Clinical Academic Forensic Psychiatrist and Research Lead in Forensic Mental Health for Justice Health and Forensic Mental Health Network in NSW. Prof. Dean has expertise in psychiatric epidemiology and forensic mental health.