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. . 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?