Research Watch: Father Figures are the Answer, But What is the Question?

Diana Zuckerman
February 1, 2002

Are Father Surrogates a Risk Factor for Child Maltreatment?

Aruna Radhakrishna, Ingrid Bou-Saada, Wanda Hunter, Diane Catellier and Jonathan Koch

Child Maltreatment, Vol. 6, No. 4, Nov. 2001.

Available free from Radhakrishna, Maternal and Child Health, CB# 7445 Rosenau Hall, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-7445, or radhakri@email.unc.edu.

In fairy tales the stepmother is the enemy, but father surrogates are usually considered a great addition to a family. The conventional wisdom is that children of single mothers, especially boys, need a man in the home to provide a role model.

Of the almost 200 children who were living with their biological mothers, approximately 15 percent reported abuse between the fourth and sixth years, and an additional 15 percent between the sixth and the eighth year.

News stories, on the other hand, provide many examples where a stepfather or boyfriend is the villain. Unfortunately, a new report supports the latter stereotype: Children with a father surrogate living at home are twice as likely to be reported for maltreatment after the man’s entry into the home than are those with either a biological father at home or no father figure at all.

The study focused on North Carolina newborns from hospitals in 37 counties, most from families where the risk of abuse or neglect seemed high. Of the 644 mother-infant pairs recruited for the study, one-third (221) were reported for abuse or neglect during the next four years. This study is based on 70 of these families and 140 families matched for age, race, sex and income that were not reported.

Of the almost 200 children who were living with their biological mothers, approximately 15 percent reported abuse between the fourth and sixth years, and an additional 15 percent between the sixth and the eighth year. In any of these time periods, maltreatment was most likely in homes with a stepfather (20 percent between the fourth and sixth year and 27 percent between the sixth and eighth year). Maltreatment was lowest among children who lived with two biological parents, but the difference in maltreatment between kids living with both parents and kids living with only the biological mother was not statistically significant.

It is important to note that most of the father surrogates were not stepfathers; most were boyfriends rather than husbands. The researchers reported anecdotally that when a report was filed against the abusive man, he often disappeared from the child protective services system, while the mother was accused of neglect because she failed to protect her child. The implications for youth workers, especially those within or working with the child protective services system, are clear: Programs and services are needed to reduce the risk that father substitutes will harm children, and children in homes with an unrelated adult male may need special attention to keep them safe.


Zuckerman, Diana. "Father Figures are the Answer, But What is the Question?" Research Watch review of “Are Father Surrogates a Risk Factor for Child Maltreatment?” Youth Today, February 2002, p. 31.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.

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