Moving in with a father or stepfather reduces the chances of abuse and neglect by mothers

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When a single mother moves in with the biological father, the risk of abuse and neglect on her part falls substantially.

So found a study of socially and economically disadvantaged families carried out by William Schneider at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, USA. He studied data from the large Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which has followed the lives of 5,000 families in 20 American cities since 1998.

Studies like this show that family services should pay careful attention to the family relationships surrounding the disadvantaged children in their care, so that they understand how such relationships are changing.

Schneider found that after biological parents move in together, the mother’s likelihood of:

  • Spanking frequently (an indicator of abuse) falls by 40%
  • Using physical force frequently falls by 42%
  • Using psychological aggression frequently falls by 37%
  • Physically neglecting the child falls by 28%
  • Exposing the child to adult substance abuse, violence and crime falls by 33%

Conversely, when mothers become single, the likelihood of these things rises. Risk of:

  • Spanking frequently increases by 43%
  • Physical neglect increases by 36%
  • Exposure to adult substance abuse, violence and crime increases by 60%
  • Involvement with Child Protective Services increases

The changes linked to a transition from cohabitation to marriage are much smaller. There is no significant change in the likelihood of abuse, though the chances of neglect fall by over one third. Perhaps this is because marriage may just confirm an already established pattern of collaborative parenting.

Compared to beginning to cohabit with a biological father, the impact of starting to cohabit with a stepfather is much smaller. There are no significant changes in abuse or neglect. But when the mother marries the stepfather, the likelihood of neglect falls more than 50%.

Such changes are commonly thought to be explained by changes in economic circumstances, but the analysis did not show correlations of this kind. Perhaps the nature of the relationship transition is more significant.

Schneider W (2016), Relationship transitions and the risk of child maltreatment, Demography 53