Family structure and child maltreatment: Do some family types place children at greater risk?

CFCA Paper No. 10 – November 2012

Introduction

This paper is an update to a 1996 discussion paper on child maltreatment and family structure published by the former National Child Protection Clearinghouse.1 Although 15 years have passed since the publication of the original paper, the extent to which family structure influences the wellbeing and outcomes for children is still a hotly debated topic, particularly in the mainstream media and for some family and religious groups. These latter groups tend to argue that the risk for poor child outcomes and child maltreatment is heightened in cohabiting and "non-intact" families (e.g., step and blended families, and sole-parent families), and that the presence of two married biological parents is best for children's wellbeing. However, research suggests there is no single cause for child maltreatment. Multiple risk factors are associated child maltreatment, and these risk factors vary according to maltreatment subtype.

The current paper summarises what the research can tell us, at this point in time, about family structure and child maltreatment. The paper is divided into three main sections:

  • an overview of what Australian child protection data can (and cannot) tell us about the relationship between family structure and child maltreatment, as well as a discussion of the strengths and limitations of this data;
  • an overview of the recent large-scale research, from Australia and internationally, that has directly investigated the relationship between family structure and child maltreatment, as well as a discussion of the strengths and limitations of this research; and
  • a brief overview of factors that may mediate the relationship between family structure and child maltreatment.

Terminology

For consistency and clarity the current paper defines different family structures as follows:

  • "Married families" - families with two married, biological parents of all children within the family;
  • "Cohabiting families" - families with two unmarried biological parents of all children within the family;
  • "Sole-mother families" (or "sole-father families") - families that include the biological mother (or father) of all children but no biological male (or female) parent, caregiver or partner in residence;
  • "Step families" - married or cohabitating families in which there is one biological parent and one non-biologically-related parent but no biological children of both parents; and
  • "Blended families" - married or cohabitating families in which there is at least one resident step child plus at least one biological or adopted child of both parents.

In this paper, the terms "child maltreatment" and "child abuse and neglect" are used interchangeably. Child maltreatment is commonly used as an umbrella term to capture five maltreatment subtypes: physical abuse, emotional maltreatment, neglect, sexual abuse, and the witnessing of family violence. For further information on the child maltreatment subtypes see Child Family Community Australia (CFCA; 2012).

 

Footnote

1 The National Child Protection Clearinghouse (NCPC) is now part of Child Family Community Australia Information Exchange. For archived NCPC publications, see <www.aifs.gov.au/nch>.