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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Who's Abusive? Comparing Step-Parents, Adoptive Parents, and Others



Warning: this is not going to be a juicy post, but dry and statistical. A commenter the other day brought up the question of whether adoptive parents or step-parents actually are more often abusive to children than biological parents, as we have been told by “Cinderella” and other stories. I went rummaging among the statistical reports and found a few answers--  although not all that I was looking for.

The U.S. Children’s Bureau publication Child Maltreatment in 2010 (http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/stats_research/index.htm#can) reported data from 51 states (including Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia) about substantiated cases of child abuse and neglect. The data are based on the definition used in the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act Reauthorization Act of 2010: “Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm”. [Interesting—I never realized before that this definition omits to mention cognitive or educational harm.] Children who are abused and neglected are most often exposed to a variety of difficulties, and it is not necessarily possible to discriminate between actions that most of us would call neglect (like poor diets) and those we’d usually call abuse (like beating with an object). This makes it hard to decide which people are abusers, but we have to recognize that the problem is a reflection of the real world conditions, not of the data collection or analysis. 

According to the Children’s Bureau report, there were 436,321  substantiated reports of child abuse and neglect in 2010. Of these, 78% focused on neglect, 17.6% on physical abuse, and 9.2% on sexual abuse. It was not clear from this report how each of these was associated with a particular group of perpetrators, but it’s important to see that specific physical abuse was relatively infrequent--- these points should be kept in mind when looking at the rest of this post.

The Children’s Bureau report noted that parents (including step-parents and adoptive parents, but not foster parents) were responsible for 81.2% of the cases in the “duplicate count” (adults who were reported more than once for mistreatment of a child). Of these cases involving parents, 0.7%  were perpetrated by adoptive parents, 84.2% by biological parents, 4.0% by step-parents, and 11.2% by parents whose relationship to the child was not recorded.

These numbers suggest that biological parents were by far the most frequent maltreaters, followed by the “unknown” group, with a much smaller frequency of mistreatment by step-parents, and the adoptive parents with a tiny proportion of cases. However, these numbers don’t tell the whole story; we need to know the proportion of each of these kinds of parents in the population, so we can look at rates of maltreatment and see whether each group accounts for more or less abuse than its occurrence in the population would predict. If there are many adoptive parents, we would expect many cases of maltreatment, and if there are very few, we would expect very few cases. (We’ll have to leave out the “unknown” group.)

A visit to the 2008 U.S. census, at www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/children/cb08-30.html  shows a total of 73 million children in the United States. Of those, 61% lived with their biological mother and father, 8% with at least one step-parent (I can’t explain what this means, sorry!), and 2 % with at least one adoptive parent. The difference between this total and 100% is because I’ve omitted less frequent situations like living with grandparents or being emancipated.

If child maltreatment was not associated with the parent’s actual relationship to the child, we’d expect 61% of cases to be perpetrated by biological parents, 8% to occur when there was a step-parent in the house, and 2% to be carried out by adoptive parents. In fact, we see many more cases of maltreatment by biological parents than we’d expect, and fewer by step-parents and adoptive parents—in fact, only about half of the expected rate by the last two groups. This result is much different from what is usually reported about step-parent maltreatment, and contradicts the 1985 article that originally stated that step-children are in unusual danger of abusive treatment (Daly,M., & Wilson, M. [1985]. Child abuse and other risks of not living with both parents. Ethology and Sociobiology, Vol. 6, pp. 197-210; courses.washington.edu/evpsych/D&W-child-abuse-ESB1985.pdf).

What if we look at the 2010 report’s information about child fatalities, as opposed to non-fatal neglect and abuse? The table showing relationship of perpetrator to child does not show step-parents or adoptive parents separately, but it does show deaths due to the actions of mothers, of fathers, of mother and father, and of mother plus another or of father plus another. It also shows deaths associated with a partner of the mother or of the father. The proportion of child fatalities perpetrated by mother or father plus another, or by a partner of one of the parents, still amounts to less than 17% of the total--  but without information about the numbers of children living in each of those situations, it’s hard to interpret exactly what this signifies. A proportion of 17% is somewhat more than the 10% accounted for by the census data for step-parents and adoptive parents, but may not be excessive when we consider unmarried partners of parents too.

Have I made mistakes here? Or could it be that step-parents have been maligned or have changed since the 1980s?    

27 comments:

  1. Wow, that IS interesting. One theory: proprietary rights. Maybe the real parents have more of an ownership idea, less worry about prosecution. "I brought you into this world, I can take you out" kind of thing.
    And, of course, stories like Cinderella are propaganda. Otherwise the swine at Disney wouldn't touch them!

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  2. But have I made a mistake? My conclusion is contrary to everybody else's, including recent work in the Netherlands. Evolutionary psychologists have built on the differences between bio and step-parents. It's hard to imagine that my fiddling around with the numbers has necessarily led to an accurate result, unless there have been some changes in recent years. IF I'm correct, I'd say your "proprietary" view has merit; also, it may be that step-parents are to some extent screened by the parent before marriage, whereas bio parents may have no chance to see each other in action with children before having their own.

    Don't get me started on Disney!

    By the way, I'm a stepmother myself, but so far have been voted not really really wicked.

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  3. I think we need more figures as I understand that the US has a much higher proportion of adopted children (per head as it were) than most European countries. Also - wicked step-mother-father beliefs would have grown up at a time when a) there were more deaths in childbirth or for other reasons and b) little escape from marriage and c) scarcer resources. Presumably now in the West it's easier for a step parent to walk out.

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  4. Do you have any percentages to contribute? Keep in mind that the U.S. figure (2%) is for adopted children only, not for foster care, which has a completely different set of figures.

    You're certainly right that the fairy tales would have developed when stepmothers, substituting for dead mothers,must have been pretty common-- stepfathers perhaps less so? I seem to have come across quite a number of literary situations where a widowed mother was praised for refusing to re-marry and thus protecting her children, and especially their inheritance. Way back in my student days, there were several articles pointing out the historical developmental advantages of a widowed mother for her children-- the extra attention she could give them without a husband or more children to distract her-- cf. George Washington. Then at some point,possibly post-Freud (not to imply that I was around before Freud!), the message became different: mothers must re-marry so their children would have a "father image" and role model, and so there would be a man to discipline them.

    Of course, this would have been a different issue at all times for people living in poverty, for whom a man's contribution to the household could be the difference between starvation and survival.

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  5. Here is a link to a table from the wikipedia article. It appears to be sourced. The article as a whole is rather USA-centric but it does seem to show that adoptions per live birth are at about three times the rate in the US compared to it's nearest "rivals". I dare say one could speculate for hours as to why this is so, but any such disparity would have to be factored into calculations.

    In the US, do you have the same distinction between short-term and long-term foster careas we do in the UK?

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  6. Your link got lost somewhere along the line. But I notice that in that Euser et al Child Maltreatment paper I had referred to before, they figured the proportion of adopted children in the Netherlands as 1% of the child population, and the maltreatment rate as .12%.

    Does your short-term foster care mean what we might call emergency care-- for example,if one parent became seriously ill while the other was traveling, and no relatives were able to take the children?

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  7. Short term foster care means anything from emergency care up to the placement for the duration of care proceedings (supposed to be 40 weeks but often more) until the move to the permanent placement. Permanence is where the child is supposed to be for the rest of it's minority. That could be either rehabilitation to parents, placement with the wider family, adoption or long-term foster care.

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  8. We do have permanency planning, but its goals have shifted between the old family reunification push and the more recent Safe Families initiative, which includes kinship care and the others. The idea is always that decisions should be made as quickly as it's realistic to make an informed decision, but of course a lot of practical factors tend to slow things down.

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  9. The UK has "Delay is a Bad Thing" built into it's legislation. There are lots of things though, making the 40 week timescale impracticable. The key to it is parallel planning. At the same time as working with the parents the CS are also assessing the wider family and planning for adoption.

    That is within proceedings though.

    To get back to the topic, what statistics are the evolutionary people using to reach their conclusions about step-parents? I'd also be interested to know what the definition of step-parent is and it often seems children are at risk from the parent's partner who may be too temporary to be called a "step-father/mother".

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  10. As far as I can tell, the evo psychs used that Daly and Wilson study. But, I say this without searching for references cited in discussing altruism and so on.

    The definition of step-parent is a strict one depending on legal marriage. I have no doubt that you're right about the temporary relationships being the more dangerous ones, but these may get left out because they're so hard to define. If a guy who slept over one night gets up and smacks the kids around in the morning, does he count as a step-parent or as a stranger? That 11% of "unknown" relationships in the 2010 report may be the most important to understand-- but would require careful interviewing methods rather than just an examination of CPS reports.

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  11. I would certainly have said we need to look at the partner rather than marriage group. Particularly here where marriage rates are quite low anyway.

    In answer to your question - the one night guy is a passing psycho. I suppose I mean the live in partner or the nearly living in partner in an acknowledged relationship. (If you sleep over more than 3 nights a week then you stop getting separate benefits and are counted as living together for joint benefits).

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  12. It is a FACT that adoptive parents ARE more abusive than natural parents are, so it is obvious that this study is bias. So many adoptees including adoptees of celebrities have killed themselves because they were abused not only by the people who adopted them, but because the adoption system itself IS abusive to adoptees. Many adoptive parents use psychiatry as another method to abuse adoptees, which is easy because there is so much discrimination to kids born out of wedlock and many adoptive parents from the 50's to 70's were told that just being a bastard they would be feeble minded and would need strict discipline which is a crock of shit. My adoptive parents are HORRIBLE people, I hate their guts, especially the woman, she abused me terribly, made me feel there was something wrong with me when there never was. A lot of adoptive parents throw teenage adoptees away into dangerous psych wards or juvie halls if they don't kiss their asses to, so it won't be thought they have failed as parents when adoptees do the typical teenage stuff. Adoptive parents will NEVER be as good as real parents, adoption is a scam and most adoptive parents and everyone in the industry SHOULD BE IN JAIL FOR ABUSE.

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  13. Do you think that you yourself may be biased because of your own regrettable experience? Who do you think should care for abandoned or orphaned children, if not adoptive families? (I ask this knowing full well that there has been an adoption industry that has stolen or bought children from poor families, but this is not the case for all adoptions.)

    We all have to be careful not to confuse our own experiences with facts about a whole group of people. I'm allergic to scallops, but it wouldn't make much sense for me to argue against their sale to anyone, would it?

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  14. The data on abuse cases that you're looking at are so heavily weighted by the instances of "neglect" that you really can't get a fair picture of "physical" or "sexual" abuse by biological versus step parents. If those categories did show a higher percentage among step-parents then you wouldn't see it, because the numerical differences would be diluted by the shear number of neglect cases. So, while it may be reasonable to conclude that neglect cases aren't necessarily more prevalent among step-parents, the same certainly can't be said of physical or sexual abuse cases.

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  15. Your point about proportions of neglect and abuse cases is very important, but I don't see how you get to the conclusion that one thing is reasonable to conclude and the other isn't-- can you explain?

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  16. Well, your conclusion based on this particular data is that child abuse by step-parents is not more common than abuse by biological parents. Right? I just think that what you said is reasonable in regard to cases of neglect, which comprise the vast majority of cases included in the data. If you were to parse out cases of physical or sexual abuse, the distribution of incidents among biological or step-parents might be different. So, to me, this data analysis doesn't provide evidence to reasonably conclude that step-parents aren't more likely to be involved in cases of physical or sexual abuse.

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  17. That's a bit different than what I thought you said, and of course it's perfectly true. Part of the problem is getting all jurisdictions to define abuse the same way and neglect the same way (as each other) and also to figure out what to do with the many cases that combine abuse and neglect. Anyway, the data analysis, dealing with what we've got which is far from perfect, certainly doesn't provide evidence that step-parents ARE more likely to be involved in these things, true?

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  18. Not taken into consideration in this analysis are other factors by which members of each group should be sorted and then compared...like socio-economic, educational, and geographical group. Socio-economic would seem be the most important one. It's a fact that the overwhelmingly vast majority of abuse/neglect cases in the US that end up in child protective services (the place from which most of the data used to generate the data in the study you quoted is drawn) involve the poor and those in the lower socio-economic groups. (I'm not saying those in higher groups do not neglect/abuse, but we're talking statistical percentages here).

    To compare groups of parents--adoptive, biological, foster, and step--fairly, you'd have to take into consideration what percentage of each of these groups are those in the lower economic groups and then compare their rates of abuse.

    It is a well-documented fact that adoptive parents as a group belong disproportionately to the higher socio-economic and educational group. In fact, I think there was an well-trumpeted study to this effect the after-commentary of which implied that the study proved that, on the whole, adoptive parents were on far better parents than biological parents. But the truth is also that, adopting is extremely costly in the US--because we've allowed adoption to be a business dominated by entrepreneurs (whether adoption lawyers or adoption agencies) so that those who adopt are overwhelmingly from higher socio-economic groups. And higher socio-economic groups account for fewer abuse/neglect cases in the system.

    Anyway, I think you see the point. Until you take factors like the socio-economic composition of each parent group into consideration, you may be seeing in your conclusion merely the correlation of factors other than KIND of parent. And so what you've concluded is simply not valid.

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  19. Parenting research, thy name is confounding variables! Of course you're quite right that SES is important, certainly with respect to whether abuse and neglect are reported and get into the statistics, and that for the reasons you point out this means the adoptive parents group is basically different from the step-parents group. And there are a number of other relevant things that probably differ for the two groups as well. One is ethnicity and associated beliefs about appropriate childrearing methods. Another is the likelihood that adoptive parents have had distressing, even traumatic, experiences with infertility and infertility treatment, and may have had miscarriages, stillbirths, and early infant deaths that have influenced their beliefs about themselves and their children. (Some step-parents may also have had these, but not as many as adoptive parents.) Then we have the contribution of the children to the parents' behavior-- not a matter of blaming the children for being abused, but recognizing that child characteristics like physical disability are associated with abuse and neglect, and are likely to be different in the two groups.

    Because the research I looked at did not consider these potential biases, its conclusions and mine cannot be completely valid. But what I was asking was whether my arithmetic was right.

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  20. So why bother to ask whether your arithmetic is right? Even IF your arithmetic is right, your conclusions are invalid and will remain invalid until and unless you take into consideration factors like socio-economic status.

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  21. I bothered because it seemed to me to work out differently than what was being claimed. But YOU needn't bother if you find it too tiresome.

    So many things that have to do with large groups of people are only understood by chipping away at them bit by bit, and I don't see how we're to do otherwise with these particular issues.

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  22. There's also some research (I'll have to look around to find it) that CPS will ignore abuse reports if they find out the parents in question are adoptive parents and the child in question is adopted. Also: Social services does not necessarily ask whether the kid is bio or not - so I HIGHLY doubt the statistics are completely correct anyway. If the information isn't volunteered, how are CPS going to know? The birth certificates are altered!

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  23. So has one study got correct statistics, and the other hasn't? This could certainly be, but I'd like to hear more about it. Do let me know about the "CPS ignoring" report if you find it.

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  24. I'm late to this conversation, but I did want to add something. A very important point is made in regards to SES. Sociologically speaking, the question is this: Do fewer parents in the higher SES group abuse kids? Is it possible they have more resources to deal with the every day stressors that may cause someone in a lower SES to abuse their kid or perhaps they are better able to both hide the abuse and fight the legal system when they do get caught? Is the higher number of reported and substantiated abuse cases in lower SES familes due to bias on the part of social services? Also, it makes sense that neglect would be so much greater, statistically speaking, than other forms of abuse if you follow that the lower SES people are more often guilty of abuse and neglect. Are they really neglectful, as in intentionally, or is it simply they don't have the resources to provide for their children as well as higher SES individuals. Does that all make sense?

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    1. My opinion is that higher SES people have more resources and a better understanding of the legal system, but that CPS workers have complicated kinds of biases that may work out somewhat differently for higher and lower SES families. (One problem is that discussed by the Barahona grand jury, which I've commented on elsewhere on this blog.)

      Most of the time, I think, a lack of parent resources and understanding contributes to increased assessment of low SES families as neglectful.An example is the family of Candace Newmaker, the child who was killed in the course of attachment therapy in 2000, with her adoptive mother looking on.

      Candace's mother and grandmother had both spent time in foster care as children. They lived in a trailer with Candace's father and the little girls. On one occasion, the rickety trailer door came open and one of the children fell out and was slightly injured. This attracted the attention of authorities, and the children were recommended for a Head Start program. While they were at Head Start one day, the mother and grandmother had a big fight, and one drove off in the only car, leaving the other no way to get to the girls at the distant Head Start center-- so she called and asked if they could be kept overnight. Little did she know that this was interpreted as child abandonment and the children were placed in a foster home. Even then, the mother thought she would get them back eventually, but her parental rights were terminated and the children were placed with adoptive families. Until the mother was told by a reporter that Candace was dead, she had no idea where the child was, and still expected to be together again one day. Whether Candace's mother couldn't understand what was happening-- whether no one explained to her-- whether her own foster care experiences made her downplay the significance of the events-- I don't know, but if they hadn't lived in a trailer and had only one car in a rural area, my guess would be that the story would not have unfolded as it did.

      No doubt CPS workers may be more sympathetic to nicely-dressed, well-mannered high SES parents, but there are other possibilities too. For example, the case in London of the beating and torture death of Victoria Climbie, an African immigrant child. Her "caregivers" were convinced that she was a witch child, possessed by demons, and were doing things to cast out the demons. The social workers were apparently too concerned about intruding where there were cultural differences to save Victoria's life.

      The moral of the story, I think, is that we really need people who are trained and funded to follow up details in each case in order to find the facts and make the best decisions for each child and family.

      (Are we going to get them? Nah!)

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  25. How about the countless children, such as myself, who don't ever report their abuse. At the time I had problems with speaking out against these new "parents" because I didn't want to disrupt any more than I had (clearly misguided at the time). I agree with your last paragraph. We need oversight. The lady in charge of my adoption never once reached out to see how I was. No one checked in at 8, 12, or 16 to see if I was showing signs of normal progression. Discarded and forgotten. Part of being both Native American and poor I guess.

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    1. Your point is very well taken. Children don't necessarily know that what they are experiencing is abuse, or know how they could report it. By the time they reach adulthood they may just want to put it all behind them--- as a result, there is very incomplete information about experiences of abuse.

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