The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Abused—and Unbalanced

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

In their understandable desire to combat child abuse, some activists stress that such abuse can occur in any type of home. While their claim about the ubiquitous possibility of abuse is technically correct, such activists should remember the research clearly identifying certain types of homes as far more likely settings for abuse. A mountain of studies indicate that children are particularly at risk of abuse if they live with a single parent—especially a single mother living with a lover biologically unrelated to her children. And now a new study has established that when state officials investigate allegations of child abuse in a single-parent home, they are all too likely to find a child suffering from mental illness.

Conducted by researchers at Stanford, the University of Southern California, and Rady Children’s Hospital, this new study investigates the prevalence of mental psychopathology among children investigated as possible victims of child abuse. To measure this prevalence, the researchers analyze data from a nationally representative sample of 1,117 such children ages one to three. The California scholars conclude that it is the children who were living with single parents who were most likely to be suffering from mental illness.

Children living in single-parent households were decidedly overrepresented in this data set to begin with. Indeed, the researchers acknowledge that child-welfare officials investigating allegations of child abuse find that “caregivers [of the children alleged to be victims of abuse] usually report never being married” (emphasis added). Still, some of the children investigated as possible victims of abuse do live with married parents, enough to make possible statistical comparisons with children in single-parent homes.

And such comparisons reveal a stunningly high relative prevalence of mental illness among investigated children living with single parents. The researchers calculate that “children who live in families where the caregiver was never married had 5.64 times higher odds of elevated [mental-health] problem scores” than did the children who lived with married parents (emphasis added).

The researchers lament that “children presenting to child welfare agencies [through allegations of child abuse] have high rates of social, emotional, developmental, health, and academic problems, the majority of which go unidentified and untreated.” They accordingly call for “more aggressive efforts to identify and treat vulnerable young children who are investigated by child welfare agencies.”  Only such efforts, they believe, offer a way to “improve M[ental]H[ealth] outcomes” for these children. But the researchers’ own data suggest that preventive efforts to encourage and strengthen parental marriages may do as much or more than any actions by child-welfare officials to deal with abuse.

(Sarah McCue Horwitz et al., “Mental Health Problems in Young Children Investigated by U.S. Child Welfare Agencies,” Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 51.6 [2012]: 572-81.)