Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

Another Hidden Cost of Welfare?

Or, more specifically, of one-parent families?

A report today is of another case of a mother apparently murdering her two daughters by drowning them and taking her own life with a gun. The killings were discovered by the woman's 8-year-old son when he came home from school.

There is no mention of a father or husband or other adult on the premises. But neither does the article actually say that the now-deceased mother was a single parent. But that is not critical to the point I want to raise here.

Isn't it reasonable to ask seriously whether a single parent, especially one rearing several children in reduced economic circumstances, is much more likely to abuse them physically - or worse - than those in a two parent household? How common is serious single parent - especially single mother - abuse of children? Violence against women in the family gets a lot of play, but there seems to be a common and curious reluctance to focus on maternal violence against their own children. For example, the Medical College of Wisconsin "Family Violence Fact Sheet" takes great pains to stress how women are victimized by family violence, and explores in detail various aspects of male perpetrated family violence - but the "Fact Sheet" includes no mention of maternal violence rates. (The "Fact Sheet" also includes "control of money, transportation, activities and social contacts" as types of "family violence." Is parental refusal to allow children to visit with "bad influences" now to be considered "family violence," as many now consider once-normal spanking?)

Official statistics indicate that women commit the great majority of crimes against children. But it is my impression that one of the lingering biases in the United States today is common refusal to acknowledge maternal child abuse, including by police. My guess is that existing statistics are probably seriously biased towards under reporting of maternal child abuse: 61.8 percent were female and 38.2 percent were male - although some studies suggest that 80% of child battery is committed by women. Almost all female child batterers seem to be the actual birth mothers of the child. But even these statistics may be highly skewed against reporting materal violence. For example, there is this report from Canada:

Physical assaults on children outnumber sexual assaults more than two-to-one (Statistics Canada, 2000). However, despite mandatory reporting laws across the country which require any individual who becomes aware of abuse or neglect of a child to report such cases to the appropriate authorities, it is likely that upwards of 90% of cases never reach the child welfare system. Nevertheless, reported cases of assault of children still represented 20% of all physical assaults reported to police during 1999. Family members were the suspected perpetrators in 22% of these instances. Parents were responsible for child assault in 66% of these reported instances, with fathers as the accused parent in 71% of cases.

Child murders are somewhat more difficult to conceal or ignore than child battery. One report claims:

A hospital in Great Britain installed hidden cameras to survey children who they feared to be at risk of abuse by their parents. They found dozens of cases and made headlines about abuse by « parents » and « step-parents ». ... What all the commentators carefully hid was who these « parents » were: there was one grandmother, one father... and thirty-seven mothers. Judging from the references to « step-parents », I suspect that the man wasn't really a father either. .... Every case involved previous children who had died in mysterious circumstances. To be more precise, 37 killer moms murdered 40 children. Total jail sentences imposed: 0, even though some of the women confessed when confronted afterwards. About 1300 child murders took place in the US last year. About 500 perpetrators were non-parents, roughly divided between men and women. Of the rest, only 30 (!) were fathers. In other words, mothers were more than 25 times more likely to kill their progeny than fathers. Yet somehow, men are viewed as being more dangerous to their children than women.

But others argue that men, not women, commit most family child murders:

There certainly are suggestions that the problem is much more widespread than is commonly - and disturbingly - reported. For example, this article reports:

"It's very rare for females to shoot themselves in this manner," Livingston County Undersheriff Robert Bezotte said.

The fate of the children apparently didn't warrant a comparable observation from Undersheriff Bezotte. It's an anecdote, of course.

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