Kristi Anne Abrahams' (left) sentencing heard that she was abused as a child. Photo: Paul Miller
Barely a day goes by in the Downing Centre District Court that a judge doesn't hear about the abuse an offender has suffered as a child.
Take Jason Arthur West. On April 5, the convicted armed robber sat in the dock of a windowless court on the lower ground floor looking every inch the hardened young criminal.
But as Judge Peter Berman delivered his sentencing remarks, a more complex and much sadder picture emerged.
''Mr West was denied opportunities that most other people in the community have because of the way he was brought up,'' Judge Berman said.
''The home environment was described as being putrid and the necessities of life were not always available, which, in part, motivated Mr West from a very young age to steal in order to get food.
''Those of us who did not experience a childhood like that were much more able to make an informed decision about our behaviour.''
The notion that many criminal offenders have had horrific upbringings is not new.
But this week's sentencing of Kristi Anne Abrahams, for the murder of her six-year-old daughter, Kiesha, has refocused attention on just how devastating and far-reaching the consequences of child abuse can be.
Having been repeatedly assaulted by her alcoholic father and then shunted from one inappropriate home to another, Abrahams was, in the words of the sentencing judge, ''the inevitable product of entrenched intergenerational failures''.
Abrahams' story is reflected in a recent survey of young people in juvenile detention in NSW that showed 81 per cent of women and 57 per cent of men had been abused or neglected.
''There are lots of different pathways that can lead from abuse as a child to offending,'' said Sydney University child abuse expert Judith Cashmore.
Among the most crucial, she said, was the effect on the chemical construction of the brain in early childhood which, while reversible, can set children on a downward path.
''In their early lives, kids need repetition, they need routine, they need security - it's when kids learn whether they need to hug or to slap,'' Dr Cashmore said.
''If you're exposed to violence at a young age, you can learn that that's the way to engage with people. Or you might turn to drugs and alcohol as a form of self-medication for the emotional pain or anger you're experiencing. Then offending may become the way of maintaining that habit.
''It's often not just abuse or neglect - they're often just part of a toxic environment that includes the stress of poverty, social isolation and so on.''
In sentencing Abrahams, Justice Ian Harrison said the system of child protection is failing to effectively address the initial abuse and the consequences that flow from it.
''We're not doing as much in the care system as we could,'' Dr Cashmore said.
''It can be something as simple as kids having to go to the Children's Court without anyone with them, or anyone who's on their side.''
There are also serious issues with care and accommodation, with abused children all too rarely able to find homes or foster care where they have a connection with a guardian that allows them to stay in the same place for a significant time.
Dr Cashmore believes more funding needs to be directed into prevention programs, not just crisis measures such as those provided by the Department of Community Services.