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Link Between Family Structure and Child Abuse

1. U.S. Data

The National Incidence Studies draw the sharpest distinctions between income groups on rates of abuse: In the United States, the poorest exhibit the highest rates of abuse.

The NIS-3 report, however, did not take into consideration the great differences in family composition across the three income groups it evaluated. At that time, major differences in the incidence of marriage within these same income groups did exist. When data from the second criterion are superimposed on the first, a disturbing picture emerges.

2. British Data

The study conducted by the family education Trust in Great Britain meticulously explored the relationship between particular types of family structure and abuse, accumulating clear data on family configuration in actual cases of abuse from 1982 to 1988. The results of this study shed light on a pattern that is highly correlated with child abuse today in both England and the United States: the absence of marriage and the presence of cohabitation.

The evidence from Great Britain is especially significant because, to date, this is the only study to explore the relationship between family structure and abuse. Specifically:

  • The safest environment for a child–that is, the family environment with the lowest risk ratio for physical abuse–is one in which the biological parents are married and the family has always been intact.
  • The rate of abuse is six times higher in the second-safest environment: the blended family in which the divorced mother has remarried.
  • The rate of abuse is 14 times higher if the child is living with a biological mother who lives alone.
  • The rate of abuse is 20 times higher if the child is living with a biological father who lives alone.
  • The rate of abuse is 20 times higher if the child is living with biological parents who are not married but are cohabiting.
  • The rate of abuse is 33 times higher if the child is living with a mother who is cohabiting with another man.

According to the British data, similar risks apply in cases of fatal child abuse. The overwhelming number of child deaths occurred in households in which the child's biological mother was cohabiting with someone who was unrelated to the child.

Cohabitation increases the risk of child abuse immensely, whether the biological parents are cohabiting or the mother is cohabiting with a boyfriend. Both conditions rank very high on the risk scale, but the environment in which a child lives with the mother's cohabiting boyfriend is by far the worst.

Although the marriage of biological parents does not guarantee childhood happiness and security, as the presence of child abuse in these families attests, children are still safest in a married household. Furthermore, an adult decision not to marry but to live with someone out of wedlock provides the most dangerous family configuration for children. Although the most current evidence for this comes from the British study, the situation is more than likely the same in the United States.

3. Significance of Data

Comparing the specifics of the U.S. and British studies is difficult because the National Incidence Studies did not gather specific data on the different types of family configuration in the United States. The NIS data, therefore, may be misleading. The NIS studies certainly do not illuminate the relationship between family structure and child abuse. For example, NIS-3 has no data on cohabitation and no data on stepfamilies.

There are other major differences on family structure between the British study and the National Incidence Studies. First, the NIS surveys look at child abuse and neglect in only three basic categories of parent presence: both parents, single parents, and neither parent. The British study compares a total of six categories of family configuration. Second, biological parents married and biological parents cohabiting are considered equivalent configurations in NIS-3, whereas the British data indicate a risk of abuse as much as 20 times higher among cohabiting biological parents than among traditionally married biological parents.

On the one point of comparability–the risk ratio between children living with the biological father alone as opposed to children living with the biological mother alone–the results are similar. In the NIS study, the risk of abuse in biological-father-alone households is 1.4 times greater than in biological-mother-alone households. In the British study, the risk ratio for the biological-father-alone households is 1.36 times higher than in biological-mother-alone households.

The data offered by the National Incidence Studies that may be the most misleading are for the either-mother-or-father category. The British category of biological mother cohabiting is not documented in NIS-3, although it is the most dangerous of all family configurations in the British study. Stepfamily configurations (biological mother and married husband) are not reported, although the British data demonstrate that the incidence of abuse in stepfamilies may be as much as six times higher than in the biological-married-parents category. In NIS-3, these categories are collapsed into one. The lack of these distinctions in the U.S. data masks grave risks for children, and therefore may be seriously misleading.

A simple way to correct this shortcoming would be to gather exact data. This could be done quickly by using the police reports for the 2,000 cases of death from child abuse each year. These reports would offer researchers significant information about child abuse and about those who commit this abuse. The first step would to access the data on family configuration in the most recent year for which records are available. The second would be to ensure that the next National Incidence Study (NIS-4), now in the planning stages, targets these data for its next report on child abuse.

The United States will face a continuing rise in the incidence of child abuse because too many Americans continue to tolerate the conditions that debilitate the family and weaken the child. The American demographic picture of abusive families could be likened to a population funnel of alienation and rejection: wide open at the top, with out-of-wedlock births, divorce, and abortions; and narrowing down to families with children who suffer serious abuse and neglect. This is particularly true when the compounding effects of two, three, and four generations of broken families have created a subculture of abuse in the local community.

While the United States tries to figure out how to rebuild its broken families and communities, its religious, social, and political leaders must do all they can to keep intact those families that have adhered to a tradition of stable married life. The family environment provided by married biological parents is the primary resource for tomorrow's well-adjusted children, for the future of the country, and for the protection of both women and children.

At this stage of the discussion, considering that U.S. policymakers do not yet have more definitive data on child abuse in different family configurations in the United States, and considering that the British findings violate neither common sense nor the peer review literature synthesized in this paper, the British findings should be used as a benchmark until more accurate numbers can be established.

Congress, however, easily could redress this gap by commissioning the GAO or the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect to conduct further studies of the U.S. data. A starting point might be to look into cases in which children have died of abuse. Police records in such cases will be the most complete because of the necessary criminal investigations that were conducted. As the British data show, the risks of serious abuse and fatal abuse are similar.