Overseas studies support Kiwi research on role of casual relationships in child abuse, writes Ewen McQueen

In the Weekend Herald last Saturday, psychologist Nigel Latta summed up the 10 things he had learned from presenting his television series on social problems in New Zealand.

Number five was the statement: "People who should know better seem to ignore the science with hardly a backward glance." Latta went on to say that our leaders and policymakers "seem to ignore good science when it doesn't suit".

Latta is right and often in this series his analysis was insightful and brought issues into sharper focus.

However, his episode on family violence and child abuse fell short. Indeed on this issue he was himself guilty of ignoring the science.


The episode gave the terrible statistics on child abuse and family violence and drew on research showing predictable links with poverty and alcohol misuse.

However, Latta avoided what social science shows is the leading risk factor - revolving door families.

These are the families where mum's latest boyfriends come and go, and both mum and her children are at hugely increased risk of violence and abuse - the so-called "Cinderella effect".

In 2009, the Office of the Commissioner for Children undertook a review on death and serious injury to children.

It concluded there were a number of risk factors, including poverty, low maternal age, and drug and alcohol issues.

Of all the factors, having a non-biological parent in the home returned the highest increase in risk - 8 to 12 times, twice as high as the increase in risk associated with poverty.

A year later, the commissioner's office published another report noting that "family breakdown" and "frequent changes in household members" were significant factors in child abuse and neglect.

The findings are mirrored in countries with similar cultural backgrounds. Research by the School of Psychology at Deakin University in Melbourne concluded: "Children under 5 living with a non-biological or step-parent are up to 77 times more likely to die from a violence-related injury than those living with their biological families."


In the United States, a study by the School of Medicine at the University of Missouri similarly concluded: "Children residing in households with unrelated adults were nearly 50 times as likely to die of inflicted injuries than children residing with two biological parents."

These findings cannot be ignored.

They show that the casualisation of human relationships which has occurred in Western societies over the past 40 years has hugely increased the risk to children.

As cultural support for stable committed marriage relationships has declined, the evidence is also clear that it is not just children who are suffering.

A recent Washington Post article noted the impact on women. It referenced a 2012 US Justice Department report which found in households comprised of one female adult and children, women experienced intimate partner violence at a rate more than 10 times higher than households with married adults with children.

Latta highlighted poverty and alcohol abuse as contributing factors to family violence but ignored the impact of our casualised relationship culture.

Latta closed with the positive assertion that family violence and child abuse is an issue we can do something about.

He is right.

However, it will need leadership that has courage to face the evidence, even if it doesn't suit.