March 8, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
The always reliable and scrupulous Nicholas Zill brings us this latest information from the 2011-2012 National Survey of Children’s Health (IFS, 2/23/15). The title of his article, “Even in Unsafe Neighborhoods, Kids are Safer in Married Families,” pretty much tells it all.
Zill analyzed the database from the NSCH which consists of responses to questionnaires and interviews with the parents of over 95,000 children. His goal was to find out in which parenting arrangements children were the safest from violence in their communities.
Young people are less likely to be victims of crime if they live in two-parent than in single-parent households. That has been a consistent finding of the National Crime Victimization Survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice. But it has been unclear whether the safety advantage stems from married couples living in less dangerous neighborhoods, on average, than unmarried parents, or from other differences in vulnerability between family types. My analysis of recent data from another national survey shows that even when their families live in unsafe neighborhoods, children in married two-parent families are less likely to be exposed to violent crime than children of never-married and divorced parents.
In the 2011-2012 National Survey of Children’s Health, conducted by the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, parents of 95,677 children aged 17 and under were asked whether their child was “ever the victim of violence or witnessed any violence in his or her neighborhood.” Among children living with their married biological parents, the overall rate of exposure to neighborhood violence was comparatively low: for every 1,000 children in intact families, 36 had witnessed or experienced neighborhood violence. By contrast, among children living with a never-married mother, the rate of violent crime exposure was nearly three times higher: 102 children per 1,000 had one or more such experiences. Among children living with a separated or divorced mother, the rate of exposure was more than twice as high as for children of married parents: 89 children per 1,000. (See Figure 1.) These comparisons are adjusted for differences across family types in the average age, sex, and race/ethnicity of the child; family income and poverty status; the parent’s education level; neighborhood quality; and frequency of residential moves.
So the mere fact of living in a high-crime neighborhood, while important, was not the salient factor in predicting a child’s exposure to violence. That’s because children living in intact married families did better than those in any other family arrangement regardless of where they were living.
Not surprisingly, kids living in neighborhoods that their parents perceived to be unsafe or unsupportive were more likely to have witnessed or experienced neighborhood violence than those living in safe and supportive neighborhoods, with respective victimization rates of 79 versus 46 children per 1,000. Also as expected, children living with never-married mothers were twice as likely as those in intact families to be living in unsafe or unsupportive neighborhoods: 44 percent versus 19 percent. Children living with separated or divorced mothers fell in between, with 34 percent of them residing in unsafe or unsupportive neighborhoods.
Interestingly, the simple presence of a man – any man – in the household wasn’t a protective factor for the children. Children living with, for example, a stepfather, had higher exposure to violence than did those living with both biological parents.
Some might assume that the absence of an adult male to protect the household is key to the higher victimization rates of single-parent families. Yet children living with a biological parent and a stepparent also had an elevated rate of exposure to neighborhood violence: 84 children per 1,000.
Frequent relocation by the family is also a bad idea. That too tends to increase a child’s exposure to violent crime. My guess is that families who move often tend to move into and out of neighborhoods in which many of the residents are transitory. Criminologist have long recognized that, when people in a neighborhood move frequently, that neighborhood tends to have a lot of crime. Neighborhoods in which people know each other and tend to be alert for strangers are less likely to experience crime of any sort, particularly violent crime.
But the question of just why married couples tend to shield their children from violence better than all others and that never-married mothers do worst at that remains. Zill tentatively tries to answer it.
First is the stress of conflict between parents and the strain of raising children as a lone parent in reduced financial circumstances. These can lead to a lack of vigilance and the overlooking of simple precautions, such as making sure that doors and windows are locked in houses and vehicles. Second, if they have broken up with their child’s other parent, a single parent will usually begin dating and trying to find a new partner. This process often involves being out of the house at night, sometimes leaving children with no or inadequate supervision. Third, as children become adolescents, the peers they become involved with in their less-than-ideal neighborhoods and schools are often troubled ones, who can lead them into hazardous situations and activities.
Of course unmarried parents, particularly mothers, tend to be financially less well-off than anyone else in society. That means they tend to live in poorer neighborhoods that tend to experience higher crime than elsewhere. And, as Zill mentions, single mothers tend to date, which often means bringing a boyfriend into the home at least temporarily. And, as the data from the Administration for Children and Families demonstrate, the combination of a single mother and her boyfriend is statistically the most dangerous for children.
Why Zill didn’t analyze data for never-married or divorced fathers, is an unanswered question. With a dataset of over 95,000, surely there are some statistics on children’s safety from violent crime when living only with their fathers. But for whatever reason Zill didn’t look at those data.
Still, the message is once again clear; children are safer in families in which their two biological parents are married. We can add that to a long list of benefits of parental marriage to kids.
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