In a World of Hurt – Canadian Children with Few Siblings and no Father

Children may suffer from neglect in any type of home; they may develop debilitating psychological or behavioral problems in any type of home. However, in a large national study recently completed at the University of Manitoba, researchers concluded that the Canadian children who suffer from neglect disproportionately come from single-parent homes, typically homes without fathers. They further conclude that the number of children who manifest symptoms of “functional impairment” also runs alarmingly high in homes without fathers—and in homes where children live with few or no siblings.

Recognizing the pressing need “to identify the child and household characteristics that are associated with specific types of child maltreatment and child functional impairment,” the Manitoba scholars dissect data collected for 6,163 children at 112 child-welfare sites across Canada, all children investigated after government officials received allegations of child abuse or neglect. These data repeatedly raise troubling questions about the well-being of children who never see their fathers and who enjoy few or no ties to sisters or brothers.

First, the researchers document a “high prevalence of single-parent homes . . . for substantiated cases of neglect.” (Other household types associated with such cases of neglect include those which regularly run out of money and those which depend on government assistance.) Indeed, over half (51%) of all substantiated cases of neglect involved children from single-parent homes.

Predictably, neglect is associated with increased odds of child functional impairment.  But so too is family structure. The researchers conclude that “single-parent homes . . . were . . . associated with increased odds of child functional impairment,” even in statistical models that account for child and household characteristics, such as the age of the children and the financial strain on the household. (Other circumstances adversely affecting child functioning include household overcrowding, two or more moves in the past year, and regularly running out of money.) Not surprisingly, the researchers put “being in a 2-parent household” as the first item in a short list of circumstances “associated with increased odds of better child functioning.”

At a time when completed fertility is running below replacement level on both sides of American-Canadian border, it is also worth noting that the researchers uncover evidence that a “greater number of children in the home was associated with significantly decreased odds of child functional impairment.” That is, children were significantly less likely to suffer from functional impairment if they lived in child-rich families. But in Canada, as in the United States, the kind of family life that sustains parental marriages and produces child-rich families has in recent decades grown far rarer. Consequently, a growing number of Canadian children suffer from “functional impairment.” It is indeed the rise in this number that prompted this new study.

The grim realities lurking behind the antiseptically clinical phrase “child functional impairment” become much clearer when the researchers unpack the dark litany of ills this phrase covers: “depression, anxiety, or withdrawal; suicidal thoughts; self-harming behaviour; attention-deficit disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder; attachment issues; aggression; running away (multiple incidents); inappropriate sexual behaviour; [criminal-system] involvement; intellectual or developmental disability; failure to meet developmental milestones; academic difficulties; fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol effects; positive toxicology at birth; physical disability; alcohol abuse; [and] drug or solvent abuse.” Tragically, functional impairment in children may signal “mental illness across the lifespan.”

Given the tale of woe implicit in their findings, it is hardly surprising that the researchers hope their findings will be “considered [by government officials and professionals] when developing prevention policies and programs aimed at reducing child maltreatment in Canada.” In identifying measures they believe might help effect such a reduction, the researchers suggest “providing particular resources for single-parent families.” How very strange that the researchers say not one word about reducing the number of such families by reinforcing enduring marriage as a social institution! That is the kind of prevention policy truly needed to reduce child maltreatment in Toronto and Tallahassee, in Montreal and Minneapolis.

(Tracie O. Afifi et al., “Substantiated Reports of Child Maltreatment from the Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect 2008: Examining Child and Household Characteristics and Child Functional Impairment,” Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 60.7 [2015]: 315-23.)