Fatherlessness linked to increased risk of child abuse

For years, fathers’ groups have complained that restraining orders, intended as a shield against domestic violence, are often misused by unscrupulous pseudo-victims and over-zealous courts.[1] However, whenever these groups request that fathers should have more time to spend with their children after divorce, feminist groups argue that those children will be exposed to more violence.[2]

Professor Robin F. Wilson 

Contrary to common perception (and the wild claims of the influential feminist lobby), the most likely abuser of a young child is certainly not her biological father.[3] In the United States, for instance, statistics reveal that mothers are almost twice as likely as fathers to abuse their children.[4] According to U.S. sociologists Murray Straus and Jan Stets, “Women not only engage in physical violence as often as men, but they also initiate violence about as often as men.”[5] Indeed, mothers account for no less than 55 per cent of all child murders in the United States, says an official report released by the U.S. Department of Justice.[6]

The information has been confirmed by a comprehensive report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, entitled Child Mistreatment (2006). The document reveals that, while fathers (including stepfathers) were involved in 36 per cent of all mistreatment cases, mothers were involved in 64 per cent of these cases. Further, while the biological father was the sole perpetrator in 18 per cent of the cases, in 40 per cent of them the mother was the sole perpetrator, with the mother acting with anybody else besides the father in 6.2 per cent of those cases.[7]

Hence the U.S. Health Department concludes: “On average, fathers who live in a married household with their children are better able to create a family environment that is more conductive to the safety and necessary care of their children. Consequently, children who live with their biological father in a married household are significantly less likely to be physically abused, sexually abused, or neglected than children who do not live with their married biological parents.”[8]

Although child abuse occurs disproportionately in non-traditional families, the subject of family breakdown has failed to receive the political, media and academic attention this major social issue warrants.[9]

While it is widely recognised that a positive relationship between a child and her father “contributes to the child’s development and may lessen the risk of abuse”,[10] children living in single-parent units have a far greater lifetime exposure to sexual assault, child mistreatment, assault by siblings and witnessing violence, than those living with their biological parents.[11]

In this sense, a comprehensive analysis of child abuse cases across 42 countries has found that children from single-parent families are considerably more likely to be victims of physical and sexual abuse than children who live with both biological parents. Further, a father’s involvement in the life of a family was directly associated with lower levels of child neglect, even in families that may be facing other factors, such as unemployment and poverty, which could place the family at risk for maltreatment.

Compared to their peers living with both of their biological parents, children in single-parent homes have:[12]

• 77 per cent greater risk of being physical abused;

• 87 per cent greater risk of being harmed by physical neglect;

• 165 per cent greater risk of experiencing notable physical neglect;

• 74 per cent greater risk of suffering from emotional neglect;

• 80 per cent greater risk of suffering serious injury as a result of abuse; and

• 120 per cent greater risk of experiencing some type of maltreatment overall.

Above all, decades of research reveal that children who do not live with both their biological parents are at significantly higher risk of being sexually abused, especially by men living in their homes who are not their biological fathers.

According to Dr Jeremy Sammut, of the Sydney-based Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), “Girls living in non-traditional families have been found to be sexually abused by their ‘stepfathers’, either the married, cohabiting or casual partner of a divorced or single mother, at six to seven times the rate girls are sexually abused by their natural fathers in intact families.”[13]

The same conclusion was reached by law professor Robin Fretwell Wilson.[14] After reading more than 70 representative research papers on the subject, she concluded: “There is little doubt that the risk is indeed real. As difficult as it is to accept, a girl’s sexual vulnerability skyrockets after divorce, with no indication that this risk will subside. As marriages continue to collapse at an extraordinary rate and the number of single-parent and remarried households soars, the number of girls put at risk can only increase.”

Professor Wilson has questioned the abject failure of the current legal system to acknowledge the extent to which children of divorced parents, particularly girls, are at the risk of sexual abuse.

She writes: “The law has failed to grasp the extent to which girls in disrupted families are at risk of sexual abuse. In the custody arena, judges base their decisions primarily on the past and present conduct of each parent. Consequently, courts examine whether a parent has molested, or is molesting, his or her daughter before awarding custody to that parent.

“However, courts generally fail to consider the equally important question: could a daughter be molested after her parents part, either by them or by someone who enters her life after divorce? This failure on the part of courts highlights a glaring inadequacy in the law: a nearly universal absence of approaches designed to prevent, as opposed to remedy, a known repercussion of parental separation, sexual abuse.”[15]

These findings in no way imply that all stepfathers are potential abusers. Naturally, sexual abuse may occur in all kinds of families. They may be perpetrated by a multiplicity of offenders, including relatives, neighbours and family friends. Of course, as Jeffrey Rosenberg and W. Bradford Wilcox correctly explain, “there are … countless stepfathers who step into the role of dad with both competence and caring. And many live-in boyfriends provide both love and structure for the children in the household”.[16]

Nonetheless, the basic fact remains that only a tiny proportion of sexual abuse is committed by biological fathers, although government statistics often lump in the statistics with stepfathers so as to make it appear that incest has become widespread.[17]

For instance, statistics of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) fail to distinguish the two groups: biological fathers and non-biological fathers.[18] This is extremely unhelpful, “given the scholarly interests in the relationship between non-traditional families and child sexual abuse, and the good international evidence that family breakdown is a major risk factor (‘more than seventy social studies’)”.[19]

Fortunately the child protection data which is publicly available in the United States is far more comprehensive and, accordingly, its 2010 National Incidence Study of Abuse and Neglect (NIS-4) has established the following: “Children living with their married biological parents had the lowest rate of abuse and neglect, whereas those living with a single parent who had a partner living in the household had the highest rate. Compared to children living with married biological parents, those whose single parent had a live-in partner were at least eight times more likely to be maltreated in one way or another. They were 10 times more likely to experience abuse and eight times more likely to experience neglect.”[20]

After carefully reviewing all the relevant statistics both in Australia and overseas, family law professor Patrick Parkinson of Sydney University’s law school has concluded: “Children whose parents live apart are exposed to a greater number of risks and difficulties than children in intact families. They are significantly more likely to be subject to reports of abuse and neglect than intact families.

“Two of the most significant reasons for this are the presence of new partners who are not biologically related to the children, and the financial and other stresses of lone parenthood. Girls in particular are at much greater risk of sexual abuse from the mother’s new partner than from their own father. Single parents, and especially those who are working to support the family, also have less time to monitor and supervise their children.”[21]

Professors Bradford Wilcox and Jeffrey Dew of the University of Virginia attempt to provide some sort of sociological explanation for these empirical findings. They write: “Mothers living in a married household are less likely to be abusive or neglectful of their children because they enjoy more support from a spouse. Fathers help mothers be better parents in a variety of ways. First, fathers can directly care for their children, thereby providing mothers with a break from the challenges and stresses of parenting. Second, by engaging in housework or other tasks associated with running a household, fathers can help decrease a mother’s stress, thereby lowering the risk of child maltreatment. Third, fathers can monitor a mother’s parenting, stepping in when she could be on the verge of engaging in abusive or neglectful parenting.

“Finally, married fathers can offer emotional support and advice to their wives, and both parents can strategise together about parenting. Such support is invaluable in reducing the odds that a mother ends up abusing their children. For all these reasons, then, mothers who are married to the father of their children are less likely to neglect or abuse their children, compared to single mothers.”[22]

Whether this might be true or not, decades of research clearly indicate that, on average, family breakdown makes society much less equal in areas such as health, education, and employment. For instance, single-parent households are substantially more likely to have incomes below the poverty line. Although it should be noted that most people living in poverty certainly do not harm their children, “lower income, the increased stress associated with the sole burden of family responsibilities, and fewer supports are thought to contribute to the risk of single parents maltreating their children”.[23]

Indeed, a study carried in the U.S. about 10 years ago found that 33 per cent of all children in single-mother households had at least once lacked food or gone hungry, whereas only 11 per cent of their peers in married households had ever lacked food at home — a nearly 300 per cent difference.[24]

Above all, it is quite undeniable that child abuse and neglect overwhelmingly occur in households from which the biological father is either voluntarily absent or involuntarily removed (often as a result of involuntary divorce or restraining orders that violate the most essential elements of due process).[25]

But since the biological father is precisely that person whom the “domestic violence industry” and child support bureaucracies want to remove from the family home, countless children of divorced parents have become the primary victims of a legal system which makes them unable to develop a stronger, more positive connection with their biological fathers, in any feasible way that would typically reduce all likelihood of abuse and neglect.

Augusto Zimmermann, LLB, LLM, PhD (Monash), is a senior lecturer in constitutional law and legal theory at Murdoch University, Western Australia. He is also a Commissioner with the Law Reform Commission of WA; fellow at the International Academy for the Study of the Jurisprudence of the Family (IASJF); president of the Western Australian Legal Theory Association (WALTA); and editor of The Western Australian Jurist. Two years ago he published a widely acclaimed book, Western Legal Theory: Theory, Concepts and Perspectives (Sydney: LexisNexis Butterworths, 2013).


[1] “To battered women’s advocates, and to feminists such as Boston Globe columnist Eileen McNamara, grips about the restraining-order system are merely an anti-female backlash. At times, some men in the fathers’ groups can indeed lapse into angry rhetoric that smacks of hostility to women. But it is equally true that many women’s advocates (who, unlike the divorced dads, have a good deal of influence in the legal system) seem to have a ‘women good, men bad’ mentality that colors their view of family conflict.” — Cathy Young, “Hitting below the belt’, Salon.com, October 25, 1999, at: URL: www.salon.com/1999/10/25/restraining_orders/

[2] John Hirst, “Divorcing dads let down again”, News Weekly (Australia), April 15, 2006. URL: www.newsweekly.com.au/article.php?id=2429

Domestic violence should not be immediately treated as criminal behaviour. According to Dr James Dobson, domestic violence often has more than one source of motivation. Although he makes it quite clear that this is certainly not true in most cases, along his career as a family counsellor he has seen many “marital relationships where the woman deliberately ‘baited’ her husband until he hit her…. Why, one may ask, would any woman want to be hit? Because females are just as capable of hatred and anger as males, and a woman can devastate a man by enticing him to strike her. It is a potent weapon. Once he has lost control and lashed out at his tormentor, she then sports undeniable evidence of his cruelty. She can show her wounds to her friends who gasp at the viciousness of that man. She can press charges against him in some cases and have him thrown in jail. She can embarrass him at his work or in the church. In short, by taking a beating, she instantly achieves a moral advantage in the eyes of neighbors, friends, and the law. It may even help her justify a divorce, or if one comes, go gain custody of her children”. — James Dobson, Love Must Be Tough: New Hope for Marriages in Crisis (Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House, 2007), p.181.

Dobson’s words will be misunderstood by those who wish to be misunderstood. But he is simply trying to remind us that domestic violence often has more than one source of motivation. — Dobson, p.179.

[3] P. Fagan and D. Hanks, “The Child Abuse Crisis: The Disintegration of Marriage, Family, and theAmerican Community”,Backgrounder (Washington, DC: The Heritage Foundation), June 3, 1997, p.16.

[4] Michael Weiss and Cathy Young, “Feminist Jurisprudence: Equal Rights or Neo-Paternalism?”, Policy Analysis (Cato Institute), No.256, June 19, 1996, at URL: www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa-256.html

See also: Murray Straus and Richard Gelles, Physical Violence in American Families (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1990).

See also: W. Bradford Wilcox and Jeffrey Dew, “Protectors or Perpetrators? Fathers, Mothers, and Child Abuse Neglect”, Center for Marriage and Families, Institute for American Values, Research Brief No.7, January 2008.

[5] Murray Straus and Jan E. Stets, “Gender Differences in Reporting Marital Violence”, in Murray Straus and Richard Gelles, op. cit., p.154.

[6] “Murder in Families”, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, at: URL: www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/mf.pdf

[7] “Child Maltreatment”, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Washington, DC: GPO, 2007). The mother acted together with the father as perpetrator in 17.3 per cent of the cases.

[8] Jeffrey Rosenberg and W. Bradford Wilcox, The Importance of Fathers in the Healthy Development of Children, Washington: Office on Child Abuse and Neglect (Washington, DC: U.S. Children’s Bureau, 2006), p.16.

[9] Jeremy Sammut, “The New Silence: Family Breakdown and Child Sexual Abuse”, Centre for Independent Studies (Sydney), No.142, January 30, 2014, p.4.

See also: Diane Russell, “The Prevalence and Seriousness of Incestuous Abuse: Stepfathers vs. Biological Fathers”, Child Abuse & Neglect 8:1 (1984), 15–22.

[10] J. Goldman, M.K. Salus, D. Wolcott and K.Y. Kennedy, “A Coordinated Response to Child Abuse and Neglect: The Foundation for Practice”, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2003, p.30.

[11] For instance, research carried in the mid-1980s by Drs Daley and Wilson revealed that pre-school children who live with one parent and one stepparent are 40 times more liked to become a victim of abuse than were children living with the biological mother and father. Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, “Child Abuse and Other Risks of Not Living with Both Parents” (1985) 6 Ethology and Sociobiology 197-210.

Michael Stiffman et al, “Household and Risk of Fatal Child Maltreatment”, (2002) 109 Pediatrics 615-21.

William L. Mac Donald and Alfred DeMaris, “Parenting Stepchildren and Biological Children: The Effect of Stepparent’s Gender and New Biological Children”, (1996) 17 Journal of Family Issues, 5-25.

Alan Booth and Judy Dunn (eds), Stepfamilies: Who Benefits? Who Does Not? (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1994).

David Popenoe observes: “Stepfamilies typically have an economic advantage, but some recent studies indicated that the children of stepfamilies have as many behavioural and emotional problems as the children of single-parent families, and possible more … Stepfamily problems, in short, may be so intractable that the best strategy for dealing with them is to do everything possible to minimize their occurrence…”. — David Popenoe, “The Evolution of Marriage and the Problems of Stepfamilies: A Biosocial Perspective”, in Alan Booth and Judy Dunn (eds), Stepfamilies: Who Benefits? Who Does Not? (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1994, pp.5, 19.

See also: Heather A. Turner, David Finkelhor, and Richard Ormrod, “The Effect of Lifetime Victimization on the Mental Health of Children and Adolescents”, (2002) 62 Social Science and Medicine 13-27.

[12] Goldman, Salus, Wolcott and Kennedy, op. cit., p.31.

[13] Sammut, op. cit., p.4.

[14] Robin F. Wilson, “Children at Risk: The Sexual Exploitation of Female Children After Divorce”, (2000) 86:2 Cornell Law Review 251, 256.

[15] Ibid, 57.

[16] Rosenberg and Wilcox, op. cit., pp.35-36.

[17] Stephen Baskerville, “Divorced from Reality”, Touchstone Journal (Chicago, Illinois), Vol. 22, Issue 1, January/February 2009. URL: www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=22-01-019-f

[18] ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics), Personal Safety Survey Australia 2005, Cat. No. 4906.0.

[19] Sammut, op. cit., p.4.

[20] Diana Zuckerman and Sarah Pedersen, “Child Abuse and Father Figures: Which Kinds of Families Are Safest to Grow Up In?” (Washington, DC: National Research Center for Women & Families, 2011). URL: http://center4research.org/violence-risky-behavior/violence-and-threats-in-the-home/father-figures-are-the-answer-but-whats-the-question/

[21] Patrick Parkinson, “For the Kid’s Sake: Repairing the Social Environment for Australian Children and Young People” (2011) 32 (3) The Australian Family 23-32.

[22] Wilcox and Dew, op. cit., p.5.

[23] Goldman, Salus, Wolcott and Kennedy, op. cit., p.27.

[24] Mark Nord, Margaret Andrews and Steven Carlson, “Household Food Security in the United States 2004”, Economics Research Report No.11, Washington/DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2005.

See also: Andrea J. Sedlak and Diane D. Broadhurst, “The Third National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect”, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1996).

Parkinson, op. cit., 23-32.

[25] P. Parkinson, J. Cashmore and J. Single, “Post-Separation Conflict and the Use of Family Restraining Orders” (2011) 33 Sydney Law Review 1, 32-33.

See also: P. Parkinson, J. Cashmore and A. Webster, “The Views of Family Lawyers on Apprehended Violence Orders After Parental Separation” (2010) 24 Australian Journal of Family Law 313, p.315.

See also: J. Hickey and S. Cumines, “Apprehended Violence Orders: A Survey of Magistrates” (Sydney, NSW: Judicial Commission of New South Wales, 1999), p.37.