Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Child abuse and family structure

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.


Brendan McNeill said...

Thank you, Lindsay, for once again saying the unsayable. While the impact of family structure on levels of child abuse is appalling, it only speaks to the negative aspect of family dysfunction.

What is not discussed as often, is how children flourish in a supportive functional two parent family environment. That with active parental support and encouragement combined with a sound economic base children can achieve in a wide range of human endeavor; an opportunity denied those who live in broken, abusive and dysfunctional family circumstances.

This is the less discussed side of the family structure coin.

There are always exceptions of course, and I think of former MP John Banks in this regard. Someone who was successful despite his family circumstances. But they are sadly the exception.

Finally, one more thing about functional families that is unsayable.

Getting married, having children and staying married can be plain hard work. Love ‘as an emotion’ is a glue insufficient to the task of keeping people together in times of stress. Only ‘love as a decision’ made in the context of a lifelong commitment will get you there. That some people still bother to get married today is due mainly to the echoes of Christianity that can still be heard in the background of our culture. As those echoes recede we will continue to discover that the welfare state is no substitute for the functional family.

We may even lament the loss of a religious faith that provided an existential reason to put the needs of others before our own; an attitude that is essential when it comes to keeping parents and families together.

Mark Wahlberg said...

What a huge frightening problem. Like the introduction of A.C.C, the D.P.B has created unintended consequences. People were quick to see the opportunities via the cornucopia of welfarism. The destruction of the traditional family unit as I knew it, started to devolve.

For many, family violence fueled by drugs and alcohol ( are they not one and the same?)is the accepted norm and reasoned argument has no place in a solution.

Recently a female solo parent acquaintance received a substantial refund from MSD for underpayment of a rent subsidy. The latest boyfriend acquired a new second hand car, a boot full of booze and the party was on. The result of that exercise can be added to the never ending flow of statistics.

oneblokesview said...


What twaddle about christianity being a reason get married.
I refer to your statement...
That some people still bother to get married today is due mainly to the echoes of Christianity that can still be heard in the background of our culture

Think about all the societies that have very high levels of marriage without "christianity".
Think of all the Buddhist based country that have a very high level of marriages.

Its the "culture" that promotes marriage and Western Culture changed with the introduction of the pill and subsequent laws demeaning the worth of marriage.

I agree with the stats and summations published above but I cannot agree with your summations.

Brendan McNeill said...

Hi ‘oneblokesview’

As we get older we are permitted to indulge in a certain amount of ‘twaddle’, and I seldom refrain from using my full quota. However, I made no claim that marriage is an institution unique to Christianity. Christianity is only relevant in as much as it was the animating religious worldview of our culture. We have spent much of the social and cultural capital it created, but we think our culture is permanent, it is not.

We have moved from believing that there are only two genders, male and female, that sex is best reserved for marriage, and that it was to be a life long commitment for mutual benefit and for the nurture of children, to a different narrative completely.

Today, you can “kill your unborn child. You can rip your family to pieces pursuing your heart’s desires. You can leave spouses in the dust and children in their cribs if you decide you love a different person — especially if that person is of the same sex. Then you’re brave and courageous. At the end of the day, I suppose, the Left believes there’s really only one relevant rule of sexual conduct: Don’t rape.”


Tell me if you think it’s possible to build a sustainable culture based upon that new replacement ideology.

Anonymous said...

Morality is a function of the economy - not the other way around.

Stop the benefits, WFF, DPB and above all the massive hidden subsides - government schools and government hospitals and government super - and all these problems will "magically" disappear.

You get what you pay for. Simple as that