Anyone who grew up without their own two biological parents doesn't need
research studies - they know that whether it's a non-married cohabitation or
a remarriage, living without the checks and balances provided by a
two-biological-parent family puts kids in jeopardy from physical, emotional
and sexual abuse. Look at these preliminary studies - "50 times more
likely!" "77% greater risk!". This is an article to file and save to use to
convince the powers that be, and the funders in your communities of the
importance of marriage-strengthening work and to read if you need
inspiration to keep going. - diane
> . . . there are many other studies that, taken together, reinforce the
> concerns. Among the findings:
> - Children living in households with unrelated adults are nearly 50 times as
> likely to die of inflicted injuries as children living with two biological
> parents, according to a study of Missouri abuse reports published in the
> journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2005.
> - Children living in stepfamilies or with single parents are at higher risk of
> physical or sexual assault than children living with two biological or
> adoptive parents, according to several studies co-authored by David
> Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against
> Children Research Center.
> - Girls whose parents divorce are at significantly higher risk of sexual
> assault, whether they live with their mother or their father, according to
> research by Robin Wilson, a family law professor at Washington and Lee
> University. . . .
> Among child-welfare specialists, there is hope that the statistical gaps will
> be filled by a comprehensive federal survey, the National Incidence Study,
> that will be completed next year.
> The previous version of the study, released in 1996, concluded that children
> of single parents had a 77 percent greater risk of being harmed by physical
> abuse than children living with both parents. But the new version will delve
> much deeper into the specifics of family structure and cohabitation, according
> to project director Andrea Sedlak.
Abuse Risk Seen Worse As Families Change
Nov 17, 2007
By DAVID CRARY
AP National Writer
NEW YORK (AP) - Six-year-old Oscar Jimenez Jr. was beaten to death in
California, then buried under fertilizer and cement. Two-year-old Devon
Shackleford was drowned in an Arizona swimming pool. Jayden Cangro, also 2,
died after being thrown across a room in Utah.
In each case, as in many others every year, the alleged or convicted
perpetrator had been the boyfriend of the child's mother‹men thrust into
father-like roles which they tragically failed to embrace.
Every case is different, every family is different. Some single mothers
bring men into their lives who lovingly help raise children when the
biological father is gone for good.
Nonetheless, many scholars and front-line caseworkers interviewed by The
Associated Press see the abusive-boyfriend syndrome as part of a broader
trend that deeply worries them. They note an ever-increasing share of
America's children grow up in homes without both biological parents, and say
the risk of child abuse is markedly higher in the nontraditional family
"This is the dark underbelly of cohabitation," said Brad Wilcox, a sociology
professor at the University of Virginia. "Cohabitation has become quite
common, and most people think, 'What's the harm?' The harm is we're
increasing a pattern of relationships that's not good for children."
The existing data on child abuse in America is patchwork, making it
difficult to track national trends with precision. The most recent federal
survey on child maltreatment tallies nearly 900,000 abuse incidents reported
to state agencies in 2005, but it does not delve into how rates of abuse
correlate with parents' marital status or the makeup of a child's household.
Similarly, data on the roughly 1,500 child-abuse fatalities that occur
annually in the United States leaves unanswered questions. Many of those
deaths result from parental neglect, rather than overt physical abuse. Of
the 500 or so deaths caused by physical abuse, the federal statistics do not
specify how many were caused by a stepparent or unmarried partner of the
However, there are many other studies that, taken together, reinforce the
concerns. Among the findings:
_Children living in households with unrelated adults are nearly 50 times as
likely to die of inflicted injuries as children living with two biological
parents, according to a study of Missouri abuse reports published in the
journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2005.
_Children living in stepfamilies or with single parents are at higher risk
of physical or sexual assault than children living with two biological or
adoptive parents, according to several studies co- authored by David
Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against
Children Research Center.
_Girls whose parents divorce are at significantly higher risk of sexual
assault, whether they live with their mother or their father, according to
research by Robin Wilson, a family law professor at Washington and Lee
"All the emphasis on family autonomy and privacy shields the families from
investigators, so we don't respond until it's too late," Wilson said. "I
hate the fact that something dangerous for children doesn't get responded to
because we're afraid of judging someone's lifestyle."
Census data leaves no doubt that family patterns have changed dramatically
in recent decades as cohabitation and single-parenthood became common.
Thirty years ago, nearly 80 percent of America's children lived with both
parents. Now, only two-thirds of them do. Of all families with children,
nearly 29 percent are now one-parent families, up from 17 percent in 1977.
The net result is a sharp increase in households with a potential for
instability, and the likelihood that adults and children will reside in them
who have no biological tie to each other.
"I've seen many cases of physical and sexual abuse that come up with
boyfriends, stepparents," said Eliana Gil, clinical director for the
national abuse-prevention group Childhelp.
"It comes down to the fact they don't have a relationship established with
these kids," she said. "Their primary interest is really the adult partner,
and they may find themselves more irritated when there's a problem with the
That was the case with Jayden Cangro.
In July 2006, his mother's boyfriend, Phillip Guymon, hurled the 2- year-old
nine feet across a room in Murray, Utah, because he balked at going to bed.
The child died from his injuries.
Jayden's mother, Carly Moore, has undergone therapy since the killing. Yet
she continues to second-guess herself about her two-year relationship with
"There's so much guilt," she said in a telephone interview. "I never saw him
hit my kids, ever. But he was gruff in his manner‹there were signs that he
wasn't most pleasant person for kids to be around."
Guymon has been sentenced to five years in prison for second-degree felony
child abuse homicide. Moore thinks the penalty is far too light.
"It's a hard thing," she said, recalling Jayden's death. "You go off to
work, you say, 'See you later,' and then everything's completely shattered
in a split second."
Some women can't see the trouble even when it's right in front of them.
Jennifer Harvey of Springfield, Mo., acknowledged in court last summer that
she continued to date a man for two months after becoming suspicious that he
had killed her 18-month-old son, Gavin.
"I was in denial," said Harvey, who was placed on five years' probation for
not acting on her suspicions. The boyfriend, Joseph Haslett, was sentenced
to life in prison for suffocating the toddler with a headlock.
The slaying of toddler Devon Shackleford in 2004 was premeditated.
Derek Chappell, who was sentenced to death this month, considered Devon an
obstacle to an on-again, off-again relationship with the boy's mother, and
drowned him in an apartment complex's swimming pool in Mesa, Ariz.
The mother, Kristal Frank, has created a Web site in memory of her son, full
of reminiscences and snapshots. Chappell is referred to only as "that
Such cases trigger a visceral reaction, but there are no simple solutions.
Some of the worst cases of child abuse involve biological parents, and
examples abound of children thriving in nontraditional households
"There's no going back to the past," said Washington and Lee's Robin Wilson.
"We don't tell people who they can cohabit with. We don't tell them they
can't have children out of wedlock."
There are, of course, some initiatives aimed at reducing the percentage of
children raised by single parents. That's one of the goals of the Bush
administration's Healthy Marriage Initiative.
"The risk (of abuse) to children outside a two-parent household is greater,"
said Susan Orr, one of the top child-welfare specialists in the Department
of Health and Human Services. "Does that mean all single parents abuse their
children? Of course not. But the risk is certainly there, and it's useful to
As with many local programs, the federal effort encourages single parents to
at least consider marriage, while other programs focus on broadening the
support network for single parents. One long-standing initiative, the
Nurse-Family Partnership, has lowered abuse rates by arranging for nurses to
visit low-income, first-time mothers throughout their pregnancy and after
their child is born.
Many social workers say the emphasis should be on nurturing healthy
relationships, whether or not the parent is married.
"The primary thing is to have adults around who care about these kids,
whatever shape it takes," said Zeinab Chahine, who was a New York City
child-protection caseworker and administrator for 22 years before taking a
high-level job in July with Casey Family Programs.
Chahine said caseworkers need to learn as much as possible, in a
nonconfrontational manner, about the personal dynamics in at-risk
households. Is there an unmarried partner who spends time there, or a newly
arrived stepparent? Does that person care about the children, or consider
them a nuisance? Is a criminal background check warranted?
"We start from perspective that the mom is as concerned about her kids as we
are," Chahine said. "We can try to help her see the need for us to look into
Judith Schagrin, a Baltimore-based social worker engaged in child welfare
for 24 years, said live-in boyfriends can be valuable resources for a single
mother and her children. Some even have been awarded custody of children as
an alternative to foster care while the mother is in jail.
"We look at the relationship the kid has with whomever is around‹is it
supportive or destructive?" Schagrin said. "Does the mother have a
long-term, stable relationship with this individual, or does she have
rotating list of partners coming in and out?"
In the real world, however, learning crucial details about a potentially
fragile family is not easy.
"The field struggles with the balance between intrusion in private matters
and awareness of significant risks to the child," said Fred Wulczyn, a
research fellow at the University of Chicago's Chapin Hall Center for
"With a social worker who's in the house on a once-a-month basis, how good
do we expect our diagnostics to be?" Wulczyn asked. "Achieving the right
balance, so you never have to ponder 'What if?'‹that's hard to do."
The sensitivity of probing into private lives is one of many problems
underlying the lack of definitive national data that correlates child abuse
with parents' marital status and household makeup. Some conservative
commentators say "political correctness" is partly to blame‹namely a
reluctance to press for data that might reflect negatively on single
Another problem is lack of thoroughness and consistency among the states as
they forward abuse reports to federal agencies. Differing definitions of
"household" and varying efforts to ascertain marital status result in a
statistical "hodgepodge," according to Elliott Smith, who oversees a
national archive of child-abuse research at Cornell University.
Among child-welfare specialists, there is hope that the statistical gaps
will be filled by a comprehensive federal survey, the National Incidence
Study, that will be completed next year.
The previous version of the study, released in 1996, concluded that children
of single parents had a 77 percent greater risk of being harmed by physical
abuse than children living with both parents. But the new version will delve
much deeper into the specifics of family structure and cohabitation,
according to project director Andrea Sedlak.
"We can ask the questions," Sedlak said. "But it's hard to look at
cohabiting. It could well be there will be too much missing data to make
Long term, many child-welfare advocates say economic and social changes are
needed, so day-care options improve and young men in poor communities have
job prospects that make marriage seem more feasible. There's also agreement
that many adults in high-risk households need better parenting
skills‹whether it's the harried young mothers often guilty of harmful
neglect or the boyfriends and stepfathers often responsible for physical
"These boyfriends increasingly have been raised without fathers and been
abused themselves," said Patrick Fagan, a family-policy specialist with the
conservative Family Research Council. "Among the inner-city poor, the
turnover of male partners is high. Where's a boy getting the model of what a
father is like?"
Oscar Jimenez Jr., the San Jose, Calif., boy found buried under cement and
fertilizer, did have a biological father who was devoted to him. But the
father, Oscar Sr., separated from Oscar Jr.'s mother in 2002 and was
prevented from seeing his son in the weeks before the boy's death in
February, allegedly from a beating by live-in boyfriend and ex-convict
The mother, Kathyrn Jimenez, says she, like her son, was abused by Corona,
yet she has pleaded guilty to three felony charges for assisting him‹driving
with him from San Jose to Phoenix to hide her son's remains, then keeping
quiet about the killing for months.
Kathryn Jimenez was in custody when Oscar Jr.'s funeral took place Sept. 29.
She didn't hear the plea of a longtime family friend.
"Listen carefully to the message," Olessia Silva said at the service. "To
all the mothers in this world who may find themselves in a difficult
situation or harmful relationship: know that there is always, always someone
willing to help if you would just reach out."
Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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