The New Zealand children who are least likely to be abused are those who live with their married biological parents.

So says welfare commentator and researcher Lindsay Mitchell in a Family First NZ-commissioned report, Child Abuse and Family Structure: What is the evidence telling us?

The report, which follows an earlier examination of child poverty and its link to family structure, claims that family structure is the "elephant in the room," and that the growth of child abuse has accompanied a reduction in marriage and an increase in co-habiting and single-parent families.

The key conclusions include:

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• For the last 50 years, families with ex-nuptial births, that have one or both parents absent, large numbers of siblings (especially from clustered or multiple births) and/or very young mothers have consistently been over-represented in the incidence of child abuse, similar to overseas data.
• Maori and Pacific families exhibit more of those features, and have appeared disproportionately in child maltreatment statistics since the earliest data analysis in 1967.
• The risk of abuse for a child whose parent/caregiver has spent more than 80 per cent of the previous five years on a benefit is 38 times greater than when there is no benefit history. Most children who are included in a benefit have a single parent or caregiver.
• Contrary to the "common narrative" that men are perpetrators and women and children are victims, both sexes are responsible for physically abusing children. Men are responsible for around 60 per cent of physical abuse findings, and are more likely to sexually abuse children, while women are more likely to neglect them. Women are also more likely to subject children to multiple forms of abuse.
• The high rates of single, step or blended families among Maori present a much more compelling reason for disproportionate rates of child abuse than either colonisation or unemployment. Like non-Maori, Maori children in two-parent working families have very low abuse rates.
• Asian children have disproportionately low rates of child abuse. The Asian population has the lowest proportion of single-parent families.
• The presence of biological fathers matters, generally protecting children from abuse. Marriage presents the greatest likelihood that the father will remain part of an intact family.
• Compared to married parents, co-habiting parents are four to five times more likely to separate by the time their child is aged 5. Overseas data also show a greater likelihood of child abuse in co-habiting families.

Ms Mitchell said she had drawn the conclusion that there was still a reluctance, compared with overseas jurisdictions, to identify which families were disproportionately associated with child abuse and deaths.

"There are certain family structures in which children will be far more vulnerable," she said.

"Suspension of fact is an abrogation of our collective responsibility to children. In the same way discussions about child poverty ignore the elephant in the room - family structure. So do analyses of the incidence of child abuse."

Family First welcomed the report, and has called on politicians and policy-makers to develop policies that support marriage, including free counselling, income splitting, removal of the marriage tax penalty and tax incentives for stable marriages, and promote the strong formation of families and preventing their breakdown.

"Children being raised by their married biological parents are by far the safest from violence, and so too are the adults," national director Bob McCoskrie said.

"When marriage is promoted, it is often labelled as an attack on solo or divorced parents, and that has kept us from recognising the qualitative benefits of marriage that have been discovered from decades of research.

In virtually every category that social science has measured, children and adults do better when parents get married and stay married, provided there is no presence of high conflict or violence.

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"This is not a criticism of solo parents. It simply acknowledges the benefits of the institution of marriage.

"Governments should focus on, and encourage and support, what works. Our children deserve this investment in their safety and protection."

The full report, and executive summary, can be read on www.familyfirst.nz under 'Research.'