Linking Spouse and Child Abuse

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Emiko Tajima, Ph.D.

Child Abuse & Neglect, November 2000, Vol. 24, pp. 1383-98

Free copy from Dr. Tajima at University of Washington School of Social Work, 4101 15th Ave NE, Seattle, WA 981056299

Identified Spouse Abuse as a Risk Factor for Child Abuse

Peter Rumm, Peter Cummings, Margot Krauss, Michelle Bell and Frederick Rivara

Child Abuse & Neglect, November 2000, Vol. 24, pp. 1375-81

Copy from Dr. Rivara at Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center, 325 Ninth Ave., Box 359960, Seattle, WA 98104.

There has been a growing interest in the relationship between spouse abuse and child abuse and a growing consensus that if a woman is abused by her husband, the children are likely to also be abused. Of course, being in a family where a mother is abused is, in itself, traumatic for most children. However, two new studies show that the likelihood of direct abuse, although significant, is not as great for children as many have assumed.

Emiko Tajima analyzed data based on a representative sample of more than 6,000 households whose members were interviewed by telephone. They used the Conflict Tactics Scale, which is designed to obtain honest responses to sensitive questions about family violence.

Sixty-one percent of the adults interviewed reported using physical punishment, but only 4 percent reported child abuse. When other traits, such as race, parents' age, social class, and drug use were statistically controlled, wife abuse explained less than 1 percent of the variance for child abuse. In other words, it could not predict whether a child would be abused or not. However, wife abuse increased the likelihood of physical abuse or punishment by more than 150 percent. Tajima concluded that although wife abuse increased the risk of child abuse, it was not a very strong influence by itself.

Tajima also found few racial differences: Latinos were least likely to be violent toward their children, but the other racial and ethnic groups did not differ from one another. Important predictors of child abuse included whether the parent had been physically abused as a child, and higher stress in the family. Boys were more likely to be abused than girls.

In a separate study published in the same journal, Peter Rumm and his colleagues studied the same question, using data from the U.S. Army Medical Command Central Registry. In the Army, as in most of the U.S., reports of abuse depend on doctors and reports to child protective services.

There were 21,643 Army families with children who had been identified as abused. The rate of child abuse among families with identified spouse abuse was 32 episodes per 1,000 family years, compared to seven episodes for families without identified spouse abuse. (The rate of 1,000 family years equals either 1,000 families for one year, 500 families for two years, etc.) On average, 21 months elapsed between the report of spouse abuse and the report of child abuse.

Although child abuse was more than four times as likely in homes where a spouse was abused, the parent's military rank and age also predicted both types of abuse. After adjusting for parent's military rank and age, families with identified spouse abuse were (only) twice as likely to also abuse a child. This means that some of the apparent impact of spouse abuse on child abuse was actually due to parents' age and rank. Moreover, spouse abuse did not predict child neglect.

Both studies indicate that spouse abuse increases the risk of child abuse, and so youth workers need to be concerned about this possibility in homes where they know spousal abuse occurs. However, doubling a relatively small risk is not as strong an association as was expected. Even though the accuracy of these reports is always a shortcoming of abuse studies, the under-reporting of abuse is likely to decrease the totals for both kinds of abuse but not the statistical relationship between them. The findings suggest that there are many factors that increase the risk of child abuse, and spouse abuse is just one of them. We have a long way to go before we can predict abuse, and that makes it difficult to prevent.