Divorce, Cohabitation, Single Parenting and the Increased Risk of Child Abuse and Neglect

Increased Risk of Child Abuse and NeglectA recent report which enumerated the risks associated with kids whose parents are cohabiting rather than married showed that one of the significant risks for children in those living arrangement was an increased chance of suffering abuse or neglect. In reviewing the statistics set forth in that report, it became evident that the risk of abuse and neglect is a very real risk for children in cohabiting households, children from single parent families and children of divorce. In this article, we will define child abuse and neglect, examine some of the statistics regarding the level of abuse and neglect for children in different living situations, list potential warning signs of abuse and neglect and discuss what to do in the event that you suspect a child is being abused.

Introduction to the Magnitude of Child Abuse and Neglect

We will get to much more detailed statistics on the prevalence of abuse and types of living arrangement which are more prone to abuse and neglect later in this article. However, I think it is important to have some grasp of the magnitude of the problem and why it should be important to anyone who works with kids on a regular basis. According to the January 2010 report entitled “Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS-4) from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (referred to herein as NIS-4), over 1.2 million children suffer harm from child abuse or neglect per year. That equates to 17.1 children per 1,000 or approximately 1 in every 58 children. When children who are endangered by abuse or neglect are added to those figures, the numbers rise to over 2.9 million kids or 39.5 per thousand. That equates to one in every 25 children. The reach and magnitude of abuse and neglect are as varied as the forms of abuse and the types of children who experience it.

In the article “When The Bough Breaks,” Martin Johnson wrote:

“Perhaps the most important part of understanding child abuse is realizing the depth of physical and emotional pain the child victim must feel. As adults in ministry to children, we can see the crisis intellectually, yet it’s extremely difficult for us to genuinely empathize with the hurt and isolation the child feels – unless we’ve felt it too. And sometimes we simply don’t recognize that real, serious, ongoing abuse is taking place in the homes of some of the children we minister to every week. Sometimes, we just don’t realize the problem.”

Consider the following chart. The following table summarizes the number of children per 1,000 who have suffered harm as a result of child abuse or neglect (this does not include children who had not been harmed but were judged to be in imminent danger because of abuse or neglect) as well as the relative risk of each group compared to children who live in homes with married biological parents:

Type of Living ArrangementInstances of Maltreatment per 1,000 ChildrenRisk Relative to Married Biological Parents
Parent With Cohabiting Partner57.2841.18%
Neither Parent33.2488.24%
Single Parent, No Partner28.4417.65%
Other Married Parents24.4358.82%
Cohabiting Biological Parents23.5345.59%
Married Biological Parents6.8100.00%

Of these six types of livings arrangements included in the report, married biological parents have, by far, the lowest incidence of abuse and neglect at 6.8 children per thousand. This is consistent regardless of what type of abuse or neglect you are examining or that standard used in determining whether an action rises to the level of abuse or neglect. Cohabiting biological parents and step families have similar rates of abuse and neglect which are about 3.5 times higher than married biological parents. Single Parent families have a rate 4.1 times higher than married biological parents, and children living in single parent families with a cohabiting partner are abused and neglected 842% more frequently than kids living with married biological parents.

Over the course of the next several weeks, we will present a ten part series on Child Abuse and Neglect. This series will cover different types of abuse and neglect, statistics related to the risks of abuse and neglect, recognizing warning signs and how to report suspected abuse and neglect.

For more resources for learning about, and dealing with child abuse and neglect, please visit our Hope 4 Hurting Kids Child Abuse & Neglect Help Center. For more resources for learning about, and dealing with sexual abuse and rape, please visit our Hope 4 Hurting Kids Sexual Abuse & Rape Help Center.

This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on Divorce Ministry 4 Kids on September 19, 2011.

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Written by Wayne Stocks
Wayne is the founder and executive director of Hope 4 Hurting Kids. He is a happily married father of four kids with a passion for helping young people who are going through rough times. In addition to Hope 4 Hurting Kids, Wayne previously started I Am A Child of Divorce and Divorce Ministry 4 Kids to help kids who are dealing with the disruption of their parents' relationship. These are now part of Hope 4 Hurting Kids. Wayne speaks frequently at conferences and churches on issues related to helping kids learn to deal with difficult emotions and life in modern families.Wayne lives with his wife, three youngest kids, three dogs and an insane collection of his kids' other pets outside of Columbus, Ohio. In addition to his work with Hope 4 Hurting Kids, Wayne is a partner in a local consulting firm, an avid reader, coaches his son's soccer team and is a proud supporter of Leicester City Football Club (and yes, for those in know, his affinity for the club does predate the 2016 championship).You can reach Wayne at wayne@hope4hurtingkids.com.