Traditional families lower risk of child abuse

BlogHer Original Post

In what is perhaps the most awkwardly-titled article I've seen recently, today it was announced that Abuse risk seen worse as families change. In spite of the fact that I had to read that multiple times to figure out what it meant, the point that unfolds is this: Children are safest raised in a household with two biological or adoptive parents, vs. being raised by a single parent, or in a step-parent or cohabitation situation.

The piece starts out discussing several tragic situations wherein children were killed by boyfriends of their mothers, setting the tone for the staggering amount of data to follow. Only brief lip service is paid to these abusive situations not necessarily being the norm:

Every case is different, every family is different. Some single mothers bring men into their lives who lovingly help raise children when the biological father is gone for good.

Nonetheless, many scholars and front-line caseworkers interviewed by The Associated Press see the abusive-boyfriend syndrome as part of a broader trend that deeply worries them. They note an ever-increasing share of America's children grow up in homes without both biological parents, and say the risk of child abuse is markedly higher in the nontraditional family structures.

While I was prepared to be skeptical -- and there's no denying the heavy hand with which this piece was written -- the data is sobering:

_Children living in households with unrelated adults are nearly 50 times as likely to die of inflicted injuries as children living with two biological parents, according to a study of Missouri abuse reports published in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2005.

_Children living in stepfamilies or with single parents are at higher risk of physical or sexual assault than children living with two biological or adoptive parents, according to several studies co-authored by David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center.

_Girls whose parents divorce are at significantly higher risk of sexual assault, whether they live with their mother or their father, according to research by Robin Wilson, a family law professor at Washington and Lee University.

Take a moment to really digest that. Fifty times as likely to die of inflicted injuries. That's a hard number to explain away.

On the other hand, "households with unrelated adults" is a broad umbrella. The article doesn't give enough information on that study to make it clear if this is a finding that can be taken at face value or not. My gut feeling is that perhaps the cited study wasn't well controlled; for example, are we equating households on socio-economic factors? Are we comparing co-habitating long-term relationships or lumping in "hey I need a place to crash now that we've been dating for two weeks" situations and comparing them to marriages? And what about abuse in intact homes -- is it possible that it isn't revealed/reported as often, rather than that it doesn't exist as often?

Admittedly, my bias isn't hard to figure out. I was a single mother for years. I am now remarried, and my children live with me and their stepfather. Reading that this (supposedly) places my kids at fifty times the risk of abuse than if I'd stayed married to their father doesn't fill me with warm fuzzies. I can't believe it, in fact. And I'm not just talking about my personal situation; I'm having trouble swallowing the trend as a whole -- mostly because I smell some bad research practices here, such as not controlling other factors in these studies, or that time-honored error of confusing correlation and causation.

Over at Bookworm Room, the party line from this piece has been swallowed hook, line and sinker:

There’s a lot more in the article which, even though it admits that some statistics are hard to come by, nevertheless says that existing statistics show a very disturbing trend for children trapped in single Mom homes, with revolving door boyfriends.

And shortly thereafter, there's this:

I’m not saying, of course, that we should make it illegal for women to raise children alone or that women alone should be denied boyfriends, or anything silly like that. I am saying, though, that one of the ways in which America can improve child welfare without more taxes and endless government programs is simply to promote traditional marriage.

Yes, I'm certain that if only America promoted traditional marriage, everything would change. Oh, I shouldn't poke fun. It's just that that level of idealism sometimes makes me itch.

I want children to be safe. I want all children to be safe. And I even want -- in a perfect world -- for everyone who gets married to stay married and live happily ever after, and for all children to be correspondingly happy there with two perfect parents. Also, I think everyone should get a pink pony!

There are children in danger in this country in unstable homes, and many of those homes include a "revolving door boyfriend," yes. There are also plenty of children who were removed from unstable homes that included two biological parents, one of whom was the abuser. Some of those children are now living a better life with a single parent. Some are reaping the benefits of a step-parent who has willingly and lovingly taken on parenting them. And some of their parents have brought in another adult who is a positive influence even though (horrors!) there hasn't been a remarriage.

This article about increased risk of child abuse in "changing families" is going to be latched onto by every conservative proponent of the "traditional family" and used as supporting evidence that two married parents raising their biological offspring is the best situation for every child, everywhere. I hope it will also fuel more research -- better research -- so that we can get to work protecting our children... without throwing a blanket of blame over every mother out there who's no longer married to her babydaddy.

Related reading:
Echidne of the Snakes: Feminism 101: Lab Work
Savage Minds: It's a Family Affair: spectacular kinship?
TheStepfamilyLife - The Blended Family Blog
Thrive After Divorce
Single Parents Blog

Contributing Editor Mir also blogs about issues parental and otherwise at Woulda Coulda Shoulda and Cornered Office, as well as sharing the joys of mindful retail therapy at Want Not.

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