Who’s really responsible for child abuse?
As it happens, it’s not nursery school teachers or even a child’s biological father. First on the list of potential abusers is the mother’s live-in boyfriend. Second on the list, with caveats, is the mother herself.
The conclusion is inescapable. Or at least it should be. Samantha Allen presents the argument, while disputing it in The Daily Beast:
Conservative and family-focused groups like the Heritage Foundation can wield it to argue that marriage is “still the safest place for women and children” and advocate for a return to traditional values. Others might counter that the economic and educational advantages of marriage—and not marriage itself—are what help children flourish.
Of course, it’s not about flourishing. It’s about preventing abuse. It’s about preventing sexual molestation. And, as we saw in a recent Boston case, it can lead to murdering children.
True enough, marriage provides many advantages to children. But, apparently, and this is the most important point, a child’s biological father is radically disinclined to abuse his children while a mother’s boyfriend, who is not a biological father, seems to be inclined to do so.
So much for fatherhood as a social construct.
However, ask yourself this. If television presents a drama about child abuse, how likely is it that the father is the culprit? I would say that it is extremely likely. A certain cultural narrative has worked to diminish and malign fatherhood, the better to convince women to jettison their husbands in favor of liberation.
The truth of the matter is: the people most likely to commit these crimes are mothers’ boyfriends.
Allen reports on the recent case of Bella Bond:
“Our daughter is dead. The guy that’s been living in my house murdered our daughter.”
These are the words that Bella Bond’s father Joseph Amoroso said he heard from her mother, Rachelle Bond, when he went to see his child for the first time. The “guy” that had been living in Rachelle Bond’s house was her ex-boyfriend Michael McCarthy, whom prosecutors allege murdered Bella in June, and then kept Bond “captive,” injected her with heroin, and, with her help, disposed of the body in the Boston Harbor after storing it in a refrigerator for weeks.
Many researchers have studied the question. They have noted that it’s not about gender. That is, there is nothing about testosterone that predisposes a man to abuse his children. A child’s male relatives are far less likely to abuse him or her than are the child’s male non-relatives.
Naturally, the researchers have offered a number of explanations of the phenomenon. They begin with the notion that the boyfriend does not command the child’s respect and thus, to discipline him, needs to use force. They also suggest that, at times, the boyfriend will feel threatened by the mother-child connection.
Allen reports on the research:
A 2001 study in Child Maltreatment found that “the presence of a non-biological father figure in the home should be considered a significant predictor of a future child maltreatment report.” In a sample of 644 mother-child pairs, the authors found no significant difference in maltreatment between mother-father households and single mother households, but did find that children with a cohabiting “father surrogate” were “twice as likely to be reported for maltreatment after his entry into the home.”
She also adds:
In 2002, a study in Pediatrics looked specifically at cases of fatal child maltreatment over a two-year time period in Missouri and found that risk of fatal maltreatment was not increased for children living with a single parent, but that it was raised eight times if they were living with unrelated adults, “primarily in households including biologically unrelated adult males and boyfriends of the child’s mother.”
One does not like to have to point this out, but these single mothers, divorced or otherwise, have very poor judgment when it comes to choosing boyfriends. They have even worse judgment when it comes to inviting these men into their homes. Since they are morally obligated to protect their children, they ought to be held somewhat accountable for the consequences of their actions.
Allen also notes that single mothers are responsible for more child abuse than are single fathers. One reason might be that more women than men are primary caregivers:
Again, these cases are not necessarily determined exclusively by the boyfriend’s gender. After all, according to 2013 statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (PDF), mothers acting alone were responsible for 40 percent of child abuse, compared to 20 percent for fathers. Mothers were also responsible for over twice the percentage of child fatalities as fathers. Bear in mind that women are more likely to be a child’s primary caretaker.
Mothers are more likely to abuse their children, but mothers spend far more time with their children. Point well made.
Naturally, Allen does not want to stigmatize single mothers. None of us want to stigmatize single mothers, many of whom are great mothers and raise wonderful children.
And yet, the statistics do not lie. Single motherhood (especially coupled with a live-in boyfriend) creates greater risks for children than does a home with two married parents.
Keep in mind, if you destigmatize something you are going to get more of it. And while it is feministically preferable for a woman not to need a man for anything—remember Gloria Steinem declaring that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle—perhaps having a stable home with a mother and father present creates the best circumstances for bringing up a child. Surely, it offers the best chance of diminishing the incidence of child abuse. And we all want to do that, don’t we?
Thus, we should not be encouraging single motherhood or divorce.