Human Events, vol. 58, no. 16, 29 April 2002, p. 14.

The Truth About Child Abuse



April is “Child Abuse Prevention Month,” according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Kinaya Sokoya, director of the D.C. Children's Trust Fund, suggests we use the occasion to “raise the public's awareness” about child abuse through “public education” and “funding parent-support programs.” In plain English, what this means is more government programs of questionable efficacy.

It is not likely we are going to reduce child abuse by “educating” anyone, especially given the message Ms. Sokoya sends to child abusers: “In order to take good care of your child, you must take good care of yourself.”

The public is already aware that we are in an epidemic of child abuse. Less widely known but still well understood among researchers is what causes it. What we lack is the resolve to face the politically incorrect truth.

The massive growth of child abuse coincides directly with the divorce revolution and fatherless homes. As Sokoya tacitly acknowledges, child abuse takes place overwhelmingly in the homes and at the hands of single parents.

A study just released by the Heritage Foundation confirms that children are up to 33 times more likely to be abused in a single-parent home than in an intact family. “Contrary to public perception,” write Patrick Fagan and Dorothy Hanks, “research shows that the most likely physical abuser of a young child will be that child’s mother, not a male in the household.” A 1996 HHS study found that “almost two-thirds [of child abusers] were females,” and mothers accounted for 55% of child murders according to a 1994 Justice Department report.

As Maggie Gallagher writes in her 1996 book, The Abolition of Marriage: “The person most likely to abuse a child physically is a single mother. The person most likely to abuse a child sexually is the mother's boyfriend or second husband. . . . Divorce, though usually portrayed as a protection against domestic violence, is far more frequently a contributing cause.”

The only thing unusual in the sensational case of Andrea Yates is that the couple remained married. Most child abusers first eliminate the father through unilateral divorce or separation, whereupon they can abuse his children with impunity.

As the Heritage report confirms, the safest place for a child is an intact, two-parent home - that is, a home with a father in it. Children’s natural protectors are their fathers. Even feminist Adrienne Burgess observes that “fathers have often played the protector role inside families.” Removing the father is what exposes the children to danger.

Yet removing fathers is precisely what family court judges routinely do at the mere request of mothers, who file two-thirds to nine-tenths of divorces. Ironically, this is often effected with trumped-up charges of child abuse, though statistically biological fathers seldom abuse their children (6.5% of child murders, according to the DOJ study). Judges claim they remove the father, even when no evidence of abuse has occurred, to “err on the side of caution.” In fact they are erring on the side of danger, and it is difficult to believe they do not realize it.

Dickens observed “the one great principle of the . . . law is to make business for itself.” In this instance, family courts and child protective bureaucracies make business for themselves by eliminating the father from the home, thus creating the environment conducive to abused children. Appalling as it sounds, the conclusion seems inescapable that we have created a massive governmental machine staffed by officials with a vested professional interest in abused children.

This is a shocking statement, but it proceeds predictably from the logic inherent to all bureaucracies: to perpetuate the problem they ostensibly exist to address.

The logic is marvelously self-justifying and self-perpetuating, since by eliminating the father, government officials can then present themselves as the solution to the problem they themselves create. The more child abuse - whether by parents or even by the social work bureaucracies themselves - the more the proffered solution is to further expand the child abuse bureaucracy. Waxing indignant about a string of child deaths at the hands of social workers in the District of Columbia, federal judges and the Washington Post find solace in the D.C. government’s solution: hire more social workers (and lawyers too for some unspecified reason). “Olivia Golden, the Child and Family Services' latest director . . . will use her increased budget to recruit more social workers and double the number of lawyers.” Lawyers, not fathers, now protect children.

If we do not have the courage to tell the truth about who is abusing children and the role of government in permitting and even encouraging them to do it, then all our professed concern for children is mere posturing. We do no service to children or to public awareness by funding groups and programs with an interest in obscuring the truth and exacerbating the problem.

Dr. Baskerville is professor of political science at Howard University.