Increased Risk of Child Abuse

Some evidence has suggested that children in sole custody arrangements may suffer an increased risk for child abuse.  Perhaps the most striking information suggesting that sole custody situations victimise children are several reports that indicate an increased risk for all forms of child abuse for sole maternal custody (Ditson & Shay 1984; Webb 1991). Ditson & Shay (1984) presented data which indicates that 63% of all confirmed child abuse in one American city during one year took place in the homes of single parents and that the mother was the perpetrator of the abuse in 77% of those cases.

Other U.S. data from various state departments of human resources suggest that, in most cases of child abuse and neglect, the mother is the perpetrator (Webb 1991; Wright 1992) and this is consistent with research reports by various advocacy groups for non-custodial parents and their children (Anderson 1990; Burmeister 1990). A study of all state child protective services agencies by the Children's Rights Coalition (a child advocacy and research organisation in Austin Texas), found that biological mothers physically abuse their children at twice the rate of biological fathers. The majority of the rest of the time, children were abused because of the single-mothers' poor choices in the subsequent men in their lives. Incidences of abuse were almost non-existent in single-father-headed households (Anderson 1990).

These data could result from the increased stress associated with single parent responsibilities, since the Ditson & Shay (1984) data also indicated that, in married families; the abuse was evenly split between male and female perpetrators (i.e., the mother and the father). Also these data based conclusions may result from the fact that following divorce more children live with mothers than with fathers. Further, no information is currently available on such increased risk among sole paternal custody children. Finally, some studies indicate directly conflicting results (Rosenthal 1988). However given the potential risk of child abuse, which may be associated with sole custody, these reports must be investigated

National data collected by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) show much the same pattern. Child abuse and neglect statistics collated by Angus & Hall (1996) of the AIHW show an over-representation of single-parent households. For the three states (Vic, Qld, & WA) and two territories (ACT & NT) for which data were provided, more cases involved children from female single-parent households (39%) than families with two natural parents (30%) or other two parent households such as step parent households (21%). The over-representation becomes even more apparent when the abuse statistics are compared with Australian Bureau of Statistics (1995) data on the relative frequency of different family types in Australia.

Both Angus & Hall (1996) and Broadbent & Bentley (1997) acknowledge the over-representation, but fail to comment on its large size. Angus & Hall (1996) say:

In all, 34% of substantiated cases of physical abuse occurred in families with two natural parents and 32% in female single-parent families. More substantiated emotional and sexual abuse and neglect cases involved children from female single-parent families than from other types of family––38% of substantiated cases of emotional abuse, 34% of sexual abuse and 47% of neglect cases. In comparison, 31% of substantiated cases of emotional abuse, 30% of substantiated cases of sexual abuse and 26% of neglect involved children from families with two natural parents.

The data strangely missing from the above statement is the relative incidence in the community of single-parent households compared with two natural parent families. When this factor is taken into account, the difference in child abuse rates becomes more starkly apparent. Since 81% of Australian children 0-14 years live with both their natural parents (Australian Bureau of Statistics 1995) and 30% of sexual abuse of children occurs in this type of family, while 13% of children live in female single parent households (Australian Bureau of Statistics 1995) and 34% of sexual abuse of children occurs in this type of household––it follows that the relative risk of sexual abuse of children in a female single parent household is over seven times the risk in a two natural parent family (34/13 x 81/30). The relative risk of any kind of abuse in a single parent household is eight times that of a two natural parent family.

With these recorded results, it is somewhat surprising that the factor of sole maternal custody is not considered in much of the literature on child abuse. Numerous factors are considered as correlates of child abuse including age and sex of the child, race, family income, number of siblings and social status. While a number of Australian studies have considered the effects of the family structure on child victimisation, most merely refer to structure as part of the family demographic information, noting the over-representation in their sample (e.g. Goodard & Hiller 1992). However, results are not reported which would indicate whether mothers were more prone to child abuse than fathers, or if sole maternal custody––as compared to joint custody, sole paternal custody, or intact family status––contributed to an increased risk for child abuse. These are simple questions. Yet these fundamental questions are not being addressed.


Ditson J., & Shay S (1984). Use of A Home-Based Microcomputer To Analyse. Community Data From Reported Cases On Child Abuse and Neglect. Child Abuse and Neglect. 8: 503-509


Webb R (1991). Characteristics of Alleged Perpetrators of Child Abuse/Neglect. R Webb, Acting Director, Department of Health and Social Services, Division Family and Youth Services, State of Alaska: Juneau, Alaska


Wright L (1992). Are Men Necessary? Texas Monthly. 17(8): 18-29  


Anderson E (1990). Mothers More Violent Than Fathers. A News Release Based On A Review of Statistics From The Texas Department of Human Services (1987-1988). Texas Children’s Rights Coalition, Austin Texas.


Burmeister H W (1990). Destroying The Myths. FAPT Briefings. 3(1): 3-4


Rosenthal J A (1988). Patterns of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect. Child Abuse and Neglect. 17: 263-271


Angus G., & Hall G (1996). Child Abuse and Neglect Australia 1994-1995. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare Series; no 16)


Australian Bureau of Statistics (1995). Australian Social Trends 1995. Australian Bureau of Statistics, (catalogue 4102.0), Australian Publishing Service: Canberra.


Broadbent A & Bentley R (1997). Child Abuse and Neglect Australia 1995-1996. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare Catalogue No CWS 1. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (Child Welfare Series No 17)


Goodard C R. & Hiller P C (1992). Tracking Physical and Sexual Abuse Cases From A Hospital Setting Into Victoria’s Criminal Justice and Child Protection Systems: A Report For The Victorian Law Foundation. Vol 1-3 Department of Social Work and Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Monash University: Melbourne.


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