The Best Child-Protection Agency

One would never get the impression from watching Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, but the 2010 report to Congress containing the findings of the Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS-4) confirm that married parents overwhelmingly represent the safest environment for America’s children, a haven where little ones are least likely to encounter physical, sexual, or emotional abuse and neglect.

Conducted by the Administration for Children and Families, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the study is based upon data collected in 2005–06 by 126 child-protective service agencies working in 122 representative counties, along with a “sentinel survey methodology” tapping the input of some 11,000 professionals who have contact with children in the course of their duties in judicial, law-enforcement, health, education, and social-service agencies. The study measured incidences using standard definitions of abuse and neglect and with two standards: an objective and relatively stringent “harm standard” that requires “demonstrable harm” in order to be classified as abuse or neglect; and a lenient “endangerment standard” where a professional believes a child is endangered or if an investigation indicates such.

Looking at the distribution of abuse and neglect by family characteristics, “family structure and living arrangement” is the strongest predictor of maltreatment using either the harm or endangerment standard. As the executive summary attests:

Children living with their married biological parents universally had the lowest rate, whereas those living with a single parent who had a cohabiting partner . . . had the highest rate in all maltreatment categories. Compared to children living with married biological parents, those whose single parent had a live-in partner had more than 8 times the rate of maltreatment overall, over 10 times the rate of abuse, and nearly 8 times the rate of neglect.

Neither differences in parental employment, socioeconomic status, family size, nor metropolitan status yielded as dramatic a difference in the reported incidences of abuse or neglect as parental marital status and living arrangement.

Relative to the findings of the 1993 study (NIS-3), the incidence of child maltreatment and levels of harm increased in this latest report for children living with one parent but decreased for children living with two parents. According to the executive summary: “The largest rate of increase for children with one parent was the Endangerment Standard neglect (58% higher in NIS-4 than NIS-3), especially the specific category of emotional neglect (a 194% increase).”

Looking at the characteristics of the perpetrators of child abuse, the study found that 81 percent of children who were abused under the harm standard were maltreated by a biological parent, a finding that appears to suggest that parents cannot be presumed to be the best protectors of children. Yet had the designers of the study been more precise, and divided the category “biological parent” into married biological parent and unmarried biological parent, the findings would likely reinforce the established pattern that married parents remain most protective of their children. Nonetheless, the study does find that when the abuse in question is sexual in nature, nearly two-thirds of cases involve a perpetrator other than a biological parent. In addition, the report claims that the severity of harm from physical abuse was significantly lower if perpetrated by a biological parent: “A physically abused child was more likely to sustain a serious injury when the abuser was not a parent.”

Members of Congress should make the effort to review this report, as its findings suggest that the best way to reduce child abuse and neglect is not by beefing up the child-protective services budget of the Administration of Children and Families but by attacking the root problem: the legal and policy environment that favors single parenthood, cohabitation, and divorce over the discipline of life-long marriage.

(Andrew J. Sedlak et al., Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect [NIS-4]: Report to Congress,Washington: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, 2010).