Of those children born in 2010 who'd been abused or neglected by age two, 76 percent were born into a single-parent setting. This startling fact comes from government research which received little or no publicity. Why?
Bureaucratic discomfort over the increasing evidence of poorer outcomes for children of single parent, welfare-dependent parents is one reason. A 2006 Ministry of Social Development paper claimed, for example, "It would be inappropriate ... to suggest the risk of fatal child maltreatment is higher on the basis of being a child of a sole parent or a child having a low birth weight."
Yet further government data shows 'step-fathers' - or partners of single parents - are strongly over-represented in child deaths from maltreatment.
Only relatively recently has cross-departmental data been used to analyse which children are at highest risk of maltreatment. Other countries have been cross-analysing their care and protection data for many years revealing the same relationship between the increased risk of child abuse and single/non-biological cohabiting families.
In New Zealand, the over-representation of Maori and Pacific children in maltreatment statistics dates back to the first nationwide survey conducted in 1967. Common reasons given for this over-representation are poverty, unemployment and, in the case of Maori, the effects of colonisation.
Evidence suggests however that the greater occurrence of single parent families - stressed mothers and serial changes of non-related male caregivers - is behind these elevated child abuse statistics. Conversely, Asian children have the lowest rate of abuse and the lowest rate of one parent families.
Of the 2010 cohort referred to earlier, the children whose parent or caregiver had spent more than 80% of the last five years on welfare were 38 times more likely to be abused or neglected by age two than those whose parent(s) had spent no time on welfare. The children born into a single parent setting (based on birth registration or benefit data) were 9 times more likely to suffer maltreatment than those children born into two parent families. Maori children with two parents who did not rely on welfare had very low rates of abuse similar to those of non-Maori children in the same circumstances.
In 1967, when marriage was almost universal among parents and sole-parent welfare dependence virtually non-existent, the rate of physical child abuse was 2.5 substantiated cases per 10,000 children. By 2014 that rate had risen to 29 cases per 10,000. This more than ten-fold increase has been accompanied by a decline in marriage and committed two parent families.
It is likely to be argued that ‘correlation does not equal causation’. While true to a certain extent, the correlations between child abuse and family structure, and child abuse and benefit-dependence, are stronger than the most commonly advanced correlative factor - poverty. When over three quarters of substantiated abuse findings by age two are from single-parent, benefit-dependent families, the coincidence is too large to dismiss.
It might also be argued the increase resulted from a lower tolerance to child abuse due to changed societal values, public awareness campaigns, and subsequently, more reporting. But using a more objective measure - assault-related hospitalisations of children - the rate is still four-fold that of the 1960s.
Another important factor ignored for too long: biological fathers generally provide a protective factor against child maltreatment. Furthermore, the chances of the father - and his extended family - remaining in the child's life are significantly increased when the parents are married.
In discussions about the unacceptable level of child abuse and neglect in New Zealand, the breakdown of the nuclear family is the elephant in the room that many would prefer to ignore. Yet to do so is an abrogation of our collective responsibility to children. The committed two parent family provides the safest environment for children. The traditional family model is still fit for purpose. It is just unfashionable, and in some minds, unforgivable to say so.
Child Abuse and Family Structure: What is the evidence telling us? follows on from Child Poverty and Family Structure: What is the evidence telling us? published in May 2016. It is the second report written for Family First by social researcher and commentator Lindsay Mitchell.
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