In fairy tales the stepmother is the enemy, but father surrogates—a man who takes over the functions of the biological father—are often considered a great addition to a family. The conventional wisdom is that children of single mothers, especially boys, need a man in the home to provide a role model.  Unfortunately, some studies find that children with a father surrogate living at home are more likely to be reported for maltreatment—abuse and neglect—than those with a biological father at home or, as some research shows, no father figure at all.

A 2009 study by Lawrence Berger and colleagues examined whether Child Protective Services (CPS) involvement varied based on a man in the mother’s life.[1] Using data on 2,297 families from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, the researchers categorized relationships according to whether the mother was living with a (male) partner or spouse, was involved in a dating relationship, or was not romantically involved.  Families in which the mother had a partner were further characterized by whether her partner was the biological father of none, some, or all of the children in her household.

Father Figures vs. Biological Fathers in the Home

Results of the 2009 study showed that families living with a man who was not the biological father of all the children in the home, and families living without a man in the home, were significantly more likely to be contacted by CPS compared to families in which the biological father of all the children lived with the mother.

The following year, a report on the National Incidence Study of Abuse and Neglect, which examines not only CPS cases but all reported incidences of abuse and neglect to community professionals, also found that maltreatment rates differed according to family structure.[2] Children living with their married biological parents had the lowest rate of abuse and neglect, whereas those living with a single parent who had a partner living in the household had the highest rate.  Compared to children living with married biological parents, those whose single parent had a live-in partner were at least 8 times more likely to be maltreated in one way or another. They were 10 mores more likely to experience abuse and 8 times more likely to experience neglect.

A 2001 study by Aruna Radhakrishna and colleagues at the University of North Carolina followed 644 North Carolina newborns for eight years. These babies were mostly from families considered at high risk of abuse or neglect based on the characteristics of the mother and infant at birth.  Researchers found that maltreatment was lowest among children who lived with two biological parents.[3] Maltreatment was most common in homes with a stepfather or boyfriend, with 80% of the maltreatment occurring between birth and age 4, 20% between ages 4-6, and 27% between ages 6-8.  Unlike the 2009 study, however, this one found no significant difference in maltreatment rates between kids living with both parents and kids living with only their biological mother.

A limitation of this study is that the person doing the abusing or neglecting was not identified.  Therefore, in homes with a stepfather or boyfriend, it is unclear whether the mother or surrogate father was abusing or neglecting the child.

Biological Parents (and Not Just Single Mothers) Mistreat Their Children, Too

A 2010 analysis of the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) found that a majority (80%) of perpetrators—those responsible for the abuse and/or neglect of a child—in 2009 were parents.[4] Of these, 85% were the biological parents, 4% were stepparents, and 1% were adoptive parents.  Four percent of perpetrators were the unmarried partners of the biological parent.  Though the report did not gather data on whether the biological parent was the father or mother or whether the parent was a single head of household, the data do show that 45% of all perpetrators were male, while 54% were female (1% were unknown).

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