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The Importance of Fathers in the Healthy Development of Children
Office on Child Abuse and Neglect, U.S. Children's Bureau Rosenberg, Jeffrey., Wilcox, W. Bradford.|
|Year Published: 2006|
3. Fathers and Their Impact on Child Maltreatment
A father in the home can be a strong protective factor for children. A father also may play a role in child maltreatment. This chapter first looks at the definition and impact of child maltreatment and presents data on the perpetrators of child abuse and neglect. The chapter then discusses fathers in light of their varying roles.
3.1 Child Maltreatment and Its Impact on Children
The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) (P.L. 93-247) defines child abuse and neglect as any "recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker that results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation" of a child under the age of 18; or, "an act or failure to act that presents an imminent risk of serious harm" to a child.
Maltreatment is commonly classified into four categories:
- Physical abuse includes punching, beating, kicking, biting or shaking a child.
- Sexual abuse refers to any sexual contact with a child, the simulation of such conduct with a child, exposing a child to sexually explicit material or conduct.
- Child neglect is a failure to provide for a child's basic needs for health care, food, clothing, adult supervision, education, and nurturing.
- Psychological maltreatment refers to behavior such as ridiculing, terrorizing, corrupting, or denying affection to a child.
The abuse and neglect of children can have profoundly negative consequences for the social, psychological, and physical health of children. The physical abuse (e.g., shaking a crying baby) and neglect of infants is linked to a range of physical and emotional maladies (e.g., seizures, irritability, developmental delays, and learning disabilities).25 The physical and psychological abuse of preschoolers and school-aged children is associated with depression, low self-esteem, antisocial behavior, juvenile delinquency, and adult criminal behavior.26 Sexual abuse is associated with depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, suicidal behavior, and promiscuity.27 Neglect is associated with "non-organic failure to thrive," which is characterized by below-average weight, height, and intellectual development; neglect also is linked to attachment disorders, aggression, and difficulty dealing with others.28
For more information on the definition and consequences of child abuse and neglect, see A Coordinated Response to Child Abuse and Neglect: The Foundation for Practice at http://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/usermanual.cfm.
3.2 Perpetrators of Child Maltreatment
In 2003, an estimated 906,000 children were victims of abuse and neglect. Neglect was the most common form of maltreatment, with 60.9 percent of child victims suffering from neglect in 2003. Neglect was followed by physical abuse (18.9 percent of child victims), sexual abuse (9.9 percent of child victims), and psychological maltreatment (4.9 percent of child victims). In 2003, approximately 1,500 children died because of abuse or neglect.29
The largest percentage of perpetrators (83.9 percent) was parents, including birth parents, adoptive parents, and stepparents.30 How do fathers compare to mothers in the perpetration of child maltreatment? As discussed earlier, Federal data derived from CPS reports in 2003 indicate that in 18.8 percent of the substantiated cases, fathers were the sole perpetrators of maltreatment; in 16.9 percent of the cases, the fathers and the mothers were perpetrators; and in 1.1 percent of the cases, the father acted with someone else to abuse or neglect his child. Mothers were the sole perpetrators in 40.8 percent of the cases and acted with someone besides the father in 6.3 percent of the cases.31 This means that fathers were involved in 36.8 percent of child maltreatment cases and that mothers were involved in 64 percent of child maltreatment cases. Additionally, more than one-half of the male perpetrators were biological fathers, and, although recidivism rates were low, biological fathers were more likely to be perpetrators of maltreatment again than were most other male perpetrators. This may be due in part to the lack of permanence between a mother and her boyfriend or that the perpetrator may be excluded from the household before recidivism can occur.32
Mothers are almost twice as likely to be directly involved in child maltreatment as fathers. Mothers are more likely to abuse or neglect their children than fathers because they bear a larger share of parenting responsibilities in two-parent families and because a large percentage of families today are headed by mothers. In some communities, they are the majority.33 Perpetrator patterns differ, however, by type of maltreatment. Mothers are not more likely to be the perpetrator when it comes to sexual abuse; fathers are more likely to be reported for this crime.34
3.3 The Presence of Fathers as a Protective Factor
Relatively little research has focused squarely on the question of how fathers either directly contribute to the risk of child abuse in a family or offer a protective factor. Nevertheless, several studies on fathers and parents in general offer insights into the role of fathers in the child maltreatment equation:
- Generally speaking, the same characteristics that make a man a good father make him less likely to abuse or neglect his children. Fathers who nurture and take significant responsibility for basic childcare for their children (e.g., feeding, changing diapers) from an early age are significantly less likely to sexually abuse their children.35 These fathers typically develop such a strong connection with their children that it decreases the likelihood of any maltreatment.
- The involvement of a father in the life of a family is also associated with lower levels of child neglect, even in families that may be facing other factors, such as unemployment and poverty, which could place the family at risk for maltreatment.36 Such involvement reduces the parenting and housework load a mother has to bear and increases the overall parental investments in family life, thereby minimizing the chances that either parent will neglect to care for or to supervise their children.
- On average, fathers who live in a married household with their children are better able to create a family environment that is more conducive to the safety and necessary care of their children. Consequently, children who live with their biological father in a married household are significantly less likely to be physically abused, sexually abused, or neglected than children who do not live with their married biological parents.
One cannot equate a household headed by a married mother and father with a household headed by parents who are cohabitating. There is something about the legal and social commitments of marriage that strengthens the positive impacts of fathering—it may simply be that being married strengthens the commitment of a father to his family. However, when working with families headed by a cohabitating couple, the caseworker should not dismiss the potential contributions to be made by the father. While research shows the benefits of marriage over cohabitation when it comes to raising children, fathers who live with the mother of their children are still in a position to contribute greatly to their children's development and must be considered a potential asset by the caseworker.37 The caseworker may also want to see if the cohabitating parents are interested in being referred to a marriage preparation course. For more information on such programs, see the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Healthy Marriage Initiative website at http://www.acf.hhs.gov/healthymarriage/index.html.
By contrast, children who live in father-absent homes often face higher risks of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect than children who live with their fathers. A 1997 Federal study indicated that the overall rate of child maltreatment among single-parent families was almost double that of the rate among two-parent families: 27.4 children per 1,000 were maltreated in single-parent families, compared to 15.5 per 1,000 in two-parent families.38 One national study found that 7 percent of children who had lived with one parent had ever been sexually abused, compared to 4 percent of children who lived with both biological parents.39
3.4 The Role of Fathers in Child Maltreatment
While a father in the home reduces the likelihood of a child being abused, there are still, of course, fathers who are perpetrators of child abuse. Research shows that there are certain characteristics of fathers that make them more likely to mistreat a child. Poverty, underemployment, or unemployment can increase a father's stress level, which may make him more likely to abuse his children physically.40 Underemployment and unemployment also undermine a father's feelings of self-worth, which may make him more likely to lash out at his children.41
Substance abuse also is strongly associated with higher rates of abuse and neglect among fathers and mothers. One study found that 66 percent of children raised in alcoholic homes were physically maltreated or witnessed domestic violence and that more than 25 percent of these children were sexually abused.42 Additionally, fathers who were abused or who witnessed domestic violence between their parents are more likely to abuse their own children.43 Among other things, substance abuse lowers the inhibitions that fathers might otherwise have in connection with abusing their children and by diminishing self-control.
Fathers with a low sense of self-worth are also more likely to abuse their children.44 Those experiencing psychological distress or low self-esteem may seek diversion from their problems or may abuse their children as a way to dominate and thus to derive a perverse sense of personal power.45 Fathers also may abuse their children as a way of exacting revenge on a spouse or partner by whom they feel humiliated.46
25 Conway, E. E. (1998). Nonaccidental head injury in infants: The shaken baby syndrome revisited. Pediatric Annals, 27(10), 677-690: Alexander, R. C. & Smith, W. L. (1998). Shaken baby syndrome. Infants and Young Children, 10(3), 1-9; Wallace, H. (1996). Family violence: Legal, medical, and social perspectives. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon; Goldman, J., & Salus, M. K. (2003). back
26 Goldman, J., & Salus, M. K. (2003); Buchanan, A. (1996). Cycles of child maltreatment: Facts, fallacies, and interventions. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Songs; Greenough, W. T., Black, J. E., & Wallace, C. S. (1987). Experience and brain development. Child Development, 58, 539-559; Shore, R. (1997). Rethinking the brain. New York, NY: Families and Work Institute; Moeller, T. P., Bachman, G. A. & Moeller, J. R. (1993). The combined effects of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse during childhood: Long-term health consequences for women. Child Abuse and Neglect. 17(5), 623-640. back
27 Calder, M. C., & Peake, A. (2001). Capacity to parent the abused child and siblings. In M. C. Calder, A. Peake, & K. Rose (Eds.), Mothers of sexually abused children: A framework for assessment, understanding and support (pp. 180-220). Dorset, UK: Russell House; Putman, F. W. (2003). Ten-year research update review: Child sexual abuse. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 42(3), 269-278; Wuertele, S. K., & Miller-Perrin, C. L. (1992). Preventing child sexual abuse. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. back
28 Buchanan, A. (1996); Greenough, W. T., et al. (1987); Shore, R. (1997); Moeller, T. P., et al. (1993); Goldman, J., & Salus, M. K. (2003). back
29 U. S. Department of Health and Human Services (ACYF). (2005). back
30 U. S. Department of Health and Human Services (ACYF). (2005). back
31 U. S. Department of Health and Human Services (ACYF). (2005). back
32 Shusterman, G. R. Fluke, J. D. & Yuan, Y. T. (2005). Male perpetrators of child maltreatment: Findings from NCANDS [On-line]. Available: http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/05/child-maltreat/report.pdf. back
33 Goldman, J., & Salus, M. K. (2003); Straus, M. A., Gelles, R. J., & Steinmetz, S. K. (1980). Behind closed doors: Violence in the American family. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. back
34 Shusterman, G. R., et al. (2005). back
35 Pruett, K. (2000). back
36 Gaudin, J. M., & Dubowitz, H. (1997). Family functioning in neglectful families: Recent research. In J. D. Berrick, R. P. Barth, & N. Gilbert (Eds.), Child welfare research review, Vol. 2 (pp. 28-62). New York, NY: Columbia University Press; Marshall, D. B., English, D. J., & Stewart, A. J. (2001). The effect of fathers or father figures on child behavioral problems in families referred to child protective services. Child Maltreatment, 6(4), 290-299. back
37 Bumpass, L., & Lu, H. (2000). Trends in cohabitation and implications for children's family contexts in the U.S. Population Studies 54, 29-41. back
38Goldman, J., & Salus, M. K. (2003); Buchanan, A. (1996); Calder, M. C., & Peake, A. (2001). Wuertele, S. K., & Miller-Perrin, C. L. (1992). back
39 Finkelhor, D., Moore, D., Hamby, S. L., & Strauss, M. A. (1997). Sexually abused children in a national survey of parents: Methodological issues. Child Abuse and Neglect, 21(1), 1-9. back
40 Buchanan, A. (1996); Goldman, J., & Salus, M. K. (2003); Kruttschnitt, C., McLeod, J. D., & Dornfield, M. (1994). The economic environment of child abuse. Social Problems, 41(2), 299-315. back
41 Buchanan, A. (1996); Figueredo, A. J., & McCloskey, L. A. (1993). Sex, money, and paternity: The evolutionary psychology of domestic violence. Ethology and Sociobiology, 14(6), 353-379. back
42 Buchanan, A. (1996). back
43 Buchanan, A. (1996). back
44 Figueredo, A. J., & McCloskey, L. A. (1993). back
45 Figueredo, A. J., & McCloskey, L. A. (1993); Buchanan, A. (1996). back
46 Figueredo, A. J., & McCloskey, L. A. (1993). back
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