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
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