Some recent high-profile cases of abused children have once again highlighted the very real problem of child abuse. Any time a child is abused it is a tragedy. Unfortunately often the response by governments is to address the symptoms instead of concentrating on the causes and dealing with prevention.
Thus there are renewed calls for various types of mandatory reporting, more emphasis on how to identify abuse, and so on. These may have their place, but the real solution would be to reduce the incidence of abuse in the first place. Targeting the causes is crucial here.
And contrary to the thinking of many of our sociologists, bureaucrats, government officials, and ruling elites, family structure really does matter in this regard. That is, not all types of family structure are the same, and some are more likely to result in child abuse than others.
Indeed, the evidence clearly indicates that children are at greatest risk of child abuse when not living in natural two-parent families, but in other family structures, such as blended families, single-parent families, step-families, and so on. The evidence for this has been accumulating for decades now. Here is a small sampling of such data.
As one study found, “the risk of abuse and neglect is likely to be exacerbated where substitute individuals fill the roles of biological parents.” A study by two Canadian professors of psychology found that when all the variables of class and maternal age are accounted for, “preschoolers in stepparent-natural parent homes . . . are estimated to be 40 times as likely to become abuse statistics as like-aged children living with two natural parents.”
These professors argue that from an evolutionary point of view, no one can or will ever love a child as the genetic parents will. Therefore we can expect less love and commitment shown to a child by a step-parent. They put it this way: “Having a step-parent has turned out to be the most powerful epidemiological risk factor for severe child maltreatment yet discovered.” Indeed, they claim that the risk of child abuse and child murder is 100 times greater in a step-parent family than in a genetic family.
In one major study of child abuses cases in which there were children of a previous marriage, it was observed that only step-children were abused and not the natural children. A 1994 study of 52,000 children found that those who are most at risk of being abused are those who are not living with both parents. A Finnish study of nearly 4,000 ninth-grade girls found that “stepfather-daughter incest was about 15 times as common as father-daughter incest”.
Or again, it has been found that children in single-parent households are especially vulnerable to abuse, often at the hands of their mother’s boyfriends. In Australia, former Human Rights Commissioner Brian Burdekin has reported a 500 to 600 per cent increase in sexual abuse of girls in families where the adult male was not the natural father.
The Australian Institute of Criminology notes that infants under the age of 12 months are the population group at highest risk of being murdered, and the most likely killer of a child is his or her non-biological father – “in other words, the mother’s new partner.” Furthermore, a study by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that children of single mothers are three times more likely to suffer physical or emotional abuse.
Another study by the AIHW found that more cases of child abuse involved children from single parent families (39%) than families with two natural parents (30%) or other two-parent families (such as families with a step-parent) (21%). Of neglect cases, 47% involved children from female single parent families compared with 26% from families with two natural parents. More recent Australian research has found that the typical child murderer is a young man in a de facto relationship with the victim’s mother.
A study of 1998-1999 Victorian child abuse victims found that 45 per cent lived with single parents. The report, by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, found that children who lived in natural two-parent families had a relatively low risk of abuse. And a more recent report from the same Institute entitled Child Protection Australia 1999-2000 reveals that children are most likely to be neglected or abused in single-parent families. It found that the ACT has the highest rate of maltreatment of children from female one-parent families (47 per cent), compared with 29 per cent in two-parent natural families and 18 per cent in step families or blended families.
And a newer report from the same body found that “a relatively high proportion of substantiations [of child abuse] involved children living in female-headed one-parent families and in two-parent step or blended families.”
And an Australian study of 900 coronial inquiries into child deaths found that children were far safer with their biological parents than with step-parents or no biological parents. A study conducted by Deakin University found that children living with a step-parent were 17 to 77 times more likely to die from intentional violence or accident.
Also, cohabitation is more dangerous for children than is marriage. A U.S. Justice Department study found that a cohabiting woman is 56 times more likely than a wife to be assaulted. And another study found that “cohabitors are more likely to experience violence than are single or marrieds.” It also found that “those males who had cohabited displayed the most accepting views of rape”.
American sociologist David Blankenhorn summarises by saying that a “child is sexually safer with her father than with any other man, from a stepfather to her mother’s boyfriend to guys in the neighborhood. She is also safer with a father than without one. A child in a fatherless home faces a significantly higher risk of sexual abuse.”
There is much more data on this issue which can be cited. But the evidence is overwhelming: if we want to get serious about preventing child abuse, then we should stop peddling the myth that all family structures are equal. They are not.
Sure, there are some children who are abused by their biological parents. But it seems they are in the clear minority. So if we want to turn around high rates of child abuse, then we should do far more to support, nurture and champion the biological two-parent family.