Risks of Child Abuse and Neglect Based on Family Structure

Wayne Stocks —  In Abuse and Neglect September 28, 2011 — 9 Comments

Welcome to part 4 of our 9 part series on child abuse and neglect. Today, we will be exploring the increased risks of child abuse and neglect for children of divorce, cohabiting households and single parent families. Please see the end of today’s article for a complete listing of articles included in this series.

child-abuse-300x199The portion of the NIS-4 report that struck us here at Divorce Ministry 4 Kids was the increased risk of abuse and neglect for children of divorce, children living in cohabiting relationships and children living in single parent families. Throughout this discussion of different charts and statistics below, you will note that one thing is absolutely consistent; the least risk of child maltreatment is for those children living with married biological parents. Let’s have a look.

This first chart looks at all instances of harm standard maltreatment as well as specific rates of abuse and neglect by family structure. By far, the largest risk of maltreatment to kids is when they are in a living situation with one parent and that parent’s cohabiting partner with 57.2 children per thousand in this living arrangement suffering maltreatment. That is 8.4 times higher than the rate for children living with married biological parents (6.8 per thousand). Cohabiting married parents and other married parents, such as step families, have the next lowest rates at 23.5 and 24.4 per thousand respectively. Children in single parent families are maltreated at a rate of 28.4 per thousand.

The rates for abuse follow a similar pattern with the exception of the fact that kids living in other married parents and cohabiting biological parent homes are more likely to be abused than those living in single parent families. Neglect follows the same pattern as all maltreatment except for the fact that kids in a home with cohabiting biological parents are slightly more likely to be neglected than those from homes classified as “other married parents.”

Sticking with the more stringent Harm Standard, let’s have a look at the different types of abuse defined by the report. Again, for all three types of abuse defined in the study (those being physical, sexual and emotional), the lowest rates of abuse per thousand children are for those kids living with married biological parents.

In the instance of physical abuse, children living with a single parent are 3.1 times more likely to be abused at a rate of 5.9 per thousand compared to 1.9 per thousand for married biological parents. Children in “Other Married Parent” families are 5.2 times more likely to be physically abused, and those kids living with a single parent and their cohabiting partner are an astounding 10.1 times more likely to be physically abused than children living with married biological parents.

Similarly, sexual abuse is much more likely in single parent (4.8 times), other married parents (10 times) and single parent with a cohabiting partner (19.8 times) households than in married biological parent homes. Indeed, “only” 1 child in every 2,000 living with married biological parents is sexually abused while nearly 20 in every 2,000 children living in a home with a single parent with a cohabiting partner is abused. There is no denying that this living demographic greatly increases the risk of sexual abuse (as well as all other forms of abuse). This living arrangement is all too common for children born to single mothers and those whose parents are divorced.

The rates for emotional abuse resulting in harm are similar to those for sexual abuse with 0.8 children per 1,000 suffering emotional abuse when living with married biological parents compared to 2.9 per thousand for those in single parents homes, 5.0 per thousand for those living in step families and with “other married parents,” and 8.2 per thousand living with a single parent who has a cohabiting partner.

This next chart looks at instances of harm standard neglect. Physical neglect is the only chart in this entire series where children living with a single parent in a cohabiting relationship are not the highest at risk group. For physical neglect, the risk to children living with neither parent is actually higher (albeit not much higher) than the rate for those living with a single parent with a cohabiting partner.

For physical, emotional and educational neglect, children living with biological parents were at the lowest risk of neglect with children living with other married parents slightly higher. The rates for single parents without partners were significantly higher and the rate for children with single parents living with a cohabiting partner were, once again, highest amount these groups.

This next chart looks at the severity of harm inflicted based on family type. We will ignore “inferred harm” as this is relatively small compared to the other groups. The risk of serious harm from all maltreatment was, once again, highest for children living with a single parent and their cohabiting partner. At 20.8 per thousand, this was 8 times higher than the rate for children living with married biological parents. The rates for step families (other married parents) and single parent families were 9.1 and 11.9 per thousand respectively.

The rate patterns for moderate harm were similar at 4.0 per thousand for children living with married biological parents and 33.0 for children living with a single parent and their cohabiting partner. That is an increased risk of 825%. The rates for other married parents and single parent families were 13.6 and 14.8 per thousand children respectively.

These next three graphs compare the NIS-4 study (conducted in 2005/2006) to the NIS-3 study conducted during 1993 and reflect the change in instances of each types of maltreatment. Due to changes in the way the study was conducted between NIS-3 and NIS-4 (additional detail was collected in the later study), they were unable to compare each individual type of family. Instead, for purposes of comparison, family types were grouped into either Single Parents (which would include single-parent families and a single parent cohabiting relationship) or Married Parents (which would include both biological married parents and step-families or other married parents).

The results are striking. For every category and type of abuse and neglect, the study showed a marked increase in maltreatment in single parent families and a marked decrease in married parent families. For example, still using the harm standard, the rate of total maltreatment decreased 39% in married parent families while increasing 30% in single parent families. The rate of abuse increased 22% in single parent families while decreasing 42% in married parent families. And, the rate for neglect increased 36% in single parent families while at the same time decreasing 33% for married parent families. The implications are clear in these results.

When it comes to types of abuse, physical abuse increased “only” 14% in single parent families while decreasing 24% in married parent families. Sexual abuse and emotional abuse increased 49% and 43% in single parent families while decreasing 62% and 48% in married parent families. Physical neglect increased 42% in single parent families and decreased 28% in married parent families while emotional neglect increased 48% in single parent families while decreasing 44% in married parent families. The results are indisputable, abuse and neglect increased significantly during the time period in single parent families while decreasing significantly in married parent families.

Turning from the harm standard of abuse and neglect to the endangerment standard (which does not generally require proof of harm in order for the abuse to be included in the study); we see that the results are similar in many respects. Under this standard, 15.8 children per thousand living with married biological parents were subjected to maltreatment while over 8.6 times that many were abused in single parent homes where the single parent was cohabiting. An astounding 136.1 children per 1,000 living in “Parent with Cohabiting Partner” households suffered maltreatment that met the endangerment standard. The rates were also high for other categories like other married parents at 51.5 children per 1,000 and single parent families at 66.3 per one thousand children. Numbers for abuse and neglect showed similar patterns with the neglect figures generally being about double or more those of abuse in most categories.

In terms of abuse, we see similar patterns. For instances of physical abuse, the rate per 1,000 children with married biological parents was 2.5 while the rate for single parents was 9.0, the rate for other married parents was 15.4, and the rate for single parents with a cohabiting partner was a whopping 26.2. Sexual abuse was also significantly higher in the parent with cohabiting partner category at 12.1 per 1,000 compared to 0.7 per thousand for kids living with married biological parents. Rates for single parents and other married parents were 3.4 and 5.5 respectively. Emotional abuse was also much higher in unrelated cohabiting households at 15.0 per thousand, 8.3 times higher than the 1.8 per thousand rate for children living with married biological parents. The rate for single parent homes was 5.9 per thousand, and the rate for other married parents was 8.6.

Rates for neglect were similar. Rates for children in households with married biological parents were 6.5, 6.7 and 1.9 per thousand for physical, emotional and educational neglect respectively. The lowest family type category for each type. Single parent cohabiting households were consistently highest at 47.4, 68.2 and 11.9 per thousand for physical, emotional and educational neglect. Unlike abuse, the rates for neglect in other married families were lower than single parent families. Rates for single parent families were 29.4, 24.5 and 10.0 per thousand, while rates for other married parents were 15.1, 21.6 and 3.6 respectively.

These results, taken together with the abuse rates show us a significantly increased rate of maltreatment when an unrelated party is introduced into the family either through marriage (step families) or cohabitation. Rates for single parent families are higher than step-families for abuse but lower for neglect.

Our final chart looks at the severity of harm by family type for all maltreatment classified under the endangerment standard. Serious harm results are similar to those under the harm standard with children in single parent cohabiting household having the highest rate by far at 21.5 children per 1,000. For moderate harm, the rate for children in these households was 49.3 per 1,000 compared to 6.0 per 1,000 for children living with married biological parents, 16.0 for children living with other married parents and 22.4 for children living with single parents. Those children deemed endangered under this standard were 55.0 per 1,000 for children in single parent cohabiting households compared to 6.1 per 1,000 for children living with married biological parents. The rates were 19.6 per thousand for other married parents and 26.3 per 1,000 for single parents.

These graphs, and the study taken as a whole, demonstrate that the rate of neglect and abuse (regardless of the standard used for classification) is highest in homes with a single parent who is cohabiting. Single parent homes and other married parents (including step families) differ in their respective levels depending on the type of abuse and the standard used, but both are always significantly higher than the rates for children living in households comprised of married biological parents. The results are undeniable; children of divorce, children in single parent families and children living in cohabiting homes are at a much greater risk of abuse and neglect.

Here at Divorce Ministry 4 Kids, we feel that the issue of child abuse and neglect is serious enough to warrant dedicating an entire month to. We hope that you will read all of the articles so that you, and those in your children’s ministry, will be better prepared to deal with this issue which is all too prevalent and disproportionately affects children of divorce and children from single-parent homes. The series includes the following articles:

  1. Divorce, Single Parenting and the Increased Risk of Child Abuse and Neglect – An Introduction [09/19/2011]
  2. What is Child Abuse and Neglect? [09/21/2011]
  3. Introduction to the National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect [09/26/2011]
  4. Risks of Child Abuse and Neglect Based on Family Structure [09/28/2011]
  5. Recognizing Signs of Potential Child Abuse and Neglect [10/03/2011]
  6. What to Do If You Suspect Child Abuse or Neglect [10/05/2011]
  7. How to Talk to an Abused or Neglected Child [10/10/2011]
  8. Reporting Suspected Child Abuse or Neglect [10/12/2011]
  9. Sources of Additional Information on Child Abuse and Neglect [10/17/2011]
  10. Appendix A – Sample Policy for Reporting Suspected Abuse and Neglect [10/19/2011]

A pdf file will be posted at the end of the series including information from all nine articles in one comprehensive, not-so-brief, but easy to use format. For those of you who have expertise in this area, or have dealt with abuse and neglect situations in the past, we hope that you will join the conversation by adding your voice to the series through comments on the articles or on our Facebook Page.