Risk of step-parent abuse overlooked by authorities

The so-called Cinderella Effect – the increased risk of child abuse in step-families – needs to be confronted if more cases like that of Baby P are to be avoided, says a Times columnist.

Camilla Cavendish warns that “few questions are being asked about root causes” in cases like that of Baby P, now known to be called Peter, who was tortured and murdered by his mother’s boyfriend.

Instead of blaming child protection services and creating “more and more bureaucracy to detect children at risk”, she says, the authorities should heed the overwhelming evidence that children are safest with their natural parents.

Yet, the columnist says, there is squeamishness about acknowledging the Cinderella Effect derived from a fear of sounding judgmental.

She asks: “Should we not stop the benefits system penalising marriage, as Frank Field keeps demanding? Should we not ask whether the welfare state might have created a class of serial boyfriends, who prey on single mothers on benefits?”

She points out that in Britain, “NSPCC research has found that children living with biological parents are between 20 and 33 times safer than those living in any other type of household – despite the NSPCC being inclined to play down family breakdown.

“Poverty must surely be a factor. But the American researchers Daly and Wilson, who have done the most detailed work on this subject, say that poverty pales into insignificance compared with ‘the presence of a step-parent, which is the best epidemiological predictor of child abuse yet discovered’.”

The article echoes warnings made by Iain Duncan Smith, head of the Centre for Social Justice think-tank, who said when the death of Baby Peter was made public that it illustrated the dangers of dysfunctional families.

“This problem is further aggravated,” he wrote, “by the increasing phenomenon of non-biological guesting or substitute fathers.”

He added: “Children living with their natural mother and a guest father are eight times more likely to be on the at-risk register.”

It has been pointed out that figures linking family type to child abuse are difficult to find. The NSPCC collected statistics on child abuse by family type until the 1990s, but grouped married and unmarried parents together in one category. Since the Government took over recording the figures it has dropped the family type category altogether.

Commentator Melanie Phillips says the fact that “natural parents provide the greatest safety for children, and it is the reconstituted family which poses the greatest danger” has been concealed in order to “justify the breakdown of family life whose catastrophic ill-effects are only now beginning to be acknowledged”.

Lord Laming, former Chief Inspector of Social Services, tasked with reviewing child protection standards after the 17-month-old’s death, wrote in his report: “Particular mention should be made of the part to be played by fathers, not least as good role models.”

He added: “I believe the really important thing is that parenthood should be seen to be a lifetime commitment.”

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