Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Divorce and Female Child Abuse

Portrait of Mademoiselle Legrand, 1875 by Pierre-August Renoir

The popular belief that nontraditional families function just as well as traditional nuclear families is not only mistaken, but dangerous for children, especially for female children of divorced parents. A 2000 study by Washington and Lee University professor and social scientist Robin Fretwell Wilson presents some disastrous numbers on the results of divorce and the collapse of the nuclear family, dealing principally with their effect on female children: Female children of divorced parents, the study documents, are 50 percent more likely to suffer sexual abuse than children living with both married parents. This horrible statistic is distilled from more than 70 social science studies compiled and reviewed by Fretwell Wilson, and applies to female children living with single mothers, single fathers, and parents of both sexes who are remarried to new spouses.

“Using statistical tools to unravel the effect of multiple variables,” Fretwell Wilson reports, “sociologists have found that the factor most decisive to a girl’s increased sexual vulnerability was living in a household with adult males after her parents’ separation." Female children of divorce living with men (either their biological fathers or a male brought into the home by their mothers) were 7 times more likely to be abused than female children living only with women, a 1998 study showed. She further reports that, “measured in terms of frequency, duration, invasiveness, and force, fathers and father-substitutes subject their victims to abuse of singular destructiveness.”

A most poignant finding of the study concerned the maternal estrangement of daughters. One study showed sexual abuse of female children living without their mothers before age 16 to be 200 percent higher than that of female children living with their mothers.

Fretwell Wilson’s study settles the question of whether single-parent families, and the modern “blended” American family can function with the same efficacy in raising healthy children as the traditional nuclear family. The answer is no: The numbers show that child sexual abuse does not occur randomly across the child population: It occurs more often in single-parent or “reconstituted” families. “Far from a Kodak moment,” Fretwell Wilson writes, “the snapshot that social scientists provide of nontraditional families is one of crisis.” And this crisis affects huge numbers of our children: As of 2001, 60 percent of all marriages entered into were statistically headed for dissolution in divorce, 7.2 million children were living in step families, and half of American children were living with parents who had never married.

As a professor of law, Fretwell Wilson devotes much of her study (read it here in the Cornell Law Review) to how the U.S. courts and child custody system can create opportunities to insulate children from sexual abuse following divorce, in visitation disputes, and in other cases dealing with child custody. The first step, her study emphasizes, is for parents, courts, judges, and social workers to stop assuming that nontraditional families work the same way that nuclear families do, and to learn more about nontraditional families through the study of how they actually behave.

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