The first step toward reducing child abuse is to recognise the circumstance under which it occurs, writes Barry Maley.

Stories this year of some horrendous child abuse and even child murder have made us acutely aware of a facet of adult behaviour we would prefer not to think about.

Crime figures are collected by the states, collated nationally and then classified under four types: physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse and neglect.

In the recent past the statistical trend for such forms of abuse has been upwards.

Abusers try to hide what they do. This not only increases the dangers for children at risk, it also means that reliable figures are hard to find.

Getting a long-term, national picture has been hampered by state variation in the ways incidents are investigated, categorised and recorded.

Evidence has been available for some time showing a correlation between poverty and abuse and a correlation also with disordered neighbourhoods.

A more recent contribution is an accumulation of evidence on the family circumstances of abuses and neglected children.

Australian and Queensland data on the connection between family type and the incidence of abuse and neglect are very illuminating.

In 1997-98 there were 6323 substantiated cases of child abuse and neglect in Queensland. Abuse or neglect in sole-parent families accounted for 3038 cases out of this total.

Step-parent or blended families accounted for an additional 1209 cases, and other relative, strangers or unidentified persons for another 779.

So 5026 cases out of 6323 occurred in not-intact families or other circumstances.

The remainder, 1297 cases, occurred in natural, two-parent families.

Although intact, natural-parent families constitute about 74 percent of all families, they account for only 20 percent of abuse cases; whereas sole-parent, step- or blended families who constitute about 30 percent of Queensland families, account for about two-thirds of cases.

The pattern in other states is comparable, and international data yields much the same picture.

Child abuse in the United States has increased 134 percent since 1980, in tandem with an accelerating rate of children affected by divorce and sole parenthood.

The proportion of children entering broken homes in America has more than quadrupled since 1950.

In Britain, the risk to children has been shown to increase as we move away from the two natural-parent family model to other family types.

The child of a biological mother cohabiting with a man other than the natural father is 33 times more likely to suffer serious abuse that a child with married, natural parents.

Given the cultural similarities between Australia, Britain and the United States; given the similarities in patterns of child abuse; and given their shared histories of more divorce and more ex-nuptial parenting, it is reasonable to conclude that in child abuse we are dealing with a phenomenon found mainly in changing patterns of family life.

We must be wary of assuming that all sole-parent families, step-families or cohabiting couples are inevitably risky for children, or that married natural parents are an absolute guarantee of safety and happiness, for this is clearly not so.

But, what does seem to be the case is that, on average, the risk to children increases as we move away from an environment in which the biological parents of the child are married.

Absence of marriage may imply lack of commitment by the parents to each other, or a boyfriend to the mother; or may be exacerbated in the latter by the absence of a biological bond to the child; all of which may lead to an attenuated or even hostile adult-child relationship.

It turns out that family information is crucial not only to understanding the dynamics of abuse and neglect, but also why there might be a correlation with poverty and disordered neighbourhoods.

Although low income is associated with child abuse, and although it is easy to imagine that poverty brings stresses that may spill over into child abuse or neglect, we cannot conclude that poverty causes abuse or neglect.

It is plausible that prior family dysfunction leads to poverty and child abuse or neglect.

This would explain why abuse is relatively uncommon in intact but poor families where a parent is working, even though such families may be forced to live in neighbourhoods made disorderly by dysfunctional families and the prevalence of crime.

What is indisputable is that children from dysfunctional families are more likely to be abused or neglected, more likely to drift into delinquency and crime and more likely to abuse or neglect their own children in due course.

Recent research in Australia and overseas has shown a significant correlation between neglect and later delinquency and crime, and has uncovered neglect and/or abuse in the backgrounds of somewhere between 50 and 70 percent of delinquents and career criminals.

Quite apart from the outrage to the children, abuse and neglect have wider ramifications in terms of personal safety, threats to property and financial costs.

Little can be done overnight to solve or reverse the moral and cultural changes that have overtaken family life in the past twenty years, yet a clear understanding of the connections between intact families and child safety indicated here must be a foundation and focus of public policy.

That means three things: concentrating immediate action in promptly identifying children at risk; doing nothing to make life more difficult for the overwhelming majority of intact families who raise their children well; and striving to create the conditions for such families to flourish in the future.

Barry Maley is senior fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies, Sydney and director of the centre’s “Taking Children Seriously research programme.