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 

Exposed to Abuse

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Public officials and media reports often stress that child abuse occurs in “all kinds of households.” New research, however, clearly indicates that the risk of such abuse runs much lower in intact families than in the nontraditional households that have multiplied in recent decades.

In this study, criminologists at the University of New Hampshire assess the relative risk of child abuse by parsing data collected in 2002 and 2003 from a national probability sample of 1,000 children, ages 10 to 17. These data underscore the importance of family structure in determining the risk of child abuse. “Youth from both single parent and stepfamilies reported significantly greater exposure to multiple forms of victimization,” the New Hampshire scholars write, “than did youth living with two biological parents.”

Though children living in a single-parent family face a greater risk of abuse than do children living in an intact family, the researchers identify stepfamilies as an even more dangerous environment. The researchers find that children in stepfamilies live with “the greatest exposure to several individual forms of victimization, including child maltreatment, sexual victimization, physical assault, and peer/sibling victimization.”

As they contemplate the pattern of “elevated victimization in these non-traditional families,” the criminologists worry about the “depression, anxiety, and anger/aggression” that such victimization brings in its wake. And although they acknowledge that “parental dysfunction” and “adversity” can translate into child abuse even in intact families, these researchers stress that “that does not mean that we should ignore family type” in targeting prevention strategies. Any rational strategy, they argue, will recognize “family structure [as] a highly visible marker . . . associated with elevated risk” and will therefore identify “single parent families and, especially, stepfamilies as target groups” for intervention.

(Heather A. Turner, David Finkelhor, and Richard Ormrod, “Family Structure Variations in Patterns and Predictors of Child Victimization,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 77 [2007]: 282–95.)