National incidence studies of child abuse and neglect find that fathers (i.e., biological fathers, stepfathers, and father surrogates) are perpetrators of a significant proportion of child maltreatment. In two-parent families, fathers are perpetrators in the majority of child physical abuse and about half of emotional maltreatment cases. Fathers are particularly overrepresented as perpetrators of severe, injurious forms of abuse. Child sexual abuse is most often perpetrated by nonparental adults; however, when a parent is implicated, it is much more likely to be a father than a mother. Fathers are generally less likely than mothers to be implicated in cases of child neglect.
Although fathers are often perpetrators of child maltreatment, there still is little research on their characteristics and intervention needs. Interest in this area began in the early 1990s with recognition of the overlap of men’s abuse of their intimate partners and of their children, and has expanded slowly. As a result, the following information represents the beginning of an understanding of the characteristics of and risks posed by father perpetrators.
Characteristics of Father Perpetrators
There is ongoing debate on whether risk factors for the perpetration of maltreatment differ in fathers and mothers. Clinical descriptions of the characteristics of maltreating fathers tend to portray these men as emotionally distant, harsh, authority figures in the family rather than as distressed, overwhelmed parents lacking skills and knowledge. Rigid expectations for children, poor family cohesion, lack of accountability for past behavior, and the absence of a biological relationship between father and children are important risk factors for men’s perpetration of child abuse and neglect. Personal distress, which is an important risk factor for mothers, seems to play a less important role in predicting maltreatment in fathers. For both mothers and fathers, victimization in their family of origin and past investigations for child abuse or neglect are strong predictors of subsequent child maltreatment. Other major risk factors for both include poverty, younger age, and problematic use of alcohol and drugs.
The influence of a father’s relationship with his children and the children’s mother is another emerging area of study as it relates to risk for child maltreatment. Father absence contributes to child poverty, reduced parental resources, and increased child exposure to nonbiologically related father surrogates, all of which are associated with higher rates of child maltreatment. However, father absence, by itself, does not lead to maltreatment, and sometimes having a father involved is a greater risk for children than is their mother’s single parenthood. In particular, involvement of fathers who are antisocial, mentally ill, addicted to substances, and/or violent toward the children’s mothers likely increases children’s risk of being maltreated.
Finally, fathers who are present in the lives of their children may convey risk or protection to their children, depending on how they support and relate to children’s mothers. A higher level of support from fathers is related to reduced maternal harshness and to greater responsiveness of both parents to children’s needs. In contrast, interparental conflict is related to higher rates of coercive parenting by both fathers and mothers.
Prevention and Treatment Initiatives
Until recently, fathers were seldom included in child maltreatment prevention and intervention initiatives. Neglect of fathers has been attributed to cultural views of the preeminence of mothers in caring for and protecting children, policies and practices that failed to encourage father involvement, reluctance of professionals to work with fathers, and lack of training on working with men.
There are a variety of current initiatives to involve fathers in efforts to prevent and intervene in child maltreatment. First, there are attempts to involve fathers in already established programs for at-risk children and families, such as Head Start, home-visiting services, and community-based parenting education and support programs. These programs have traditionally served mothers and children, but many are now aiming to either involve fathers as part of regular intervention or adapt services specifically for men. To date, such initiatives have been only modestly successful at engaging fathers.
Prevention initiatives focusing directly on fathers have shown greater promise. Examples include fathering support groups, programs for fathers at key transition points (e.g., new fathers, fathers of children going into adolescence), and intensive support services to fathers in fragile, at-risk families. These programs are often profiled by national fathering organizations such as Fathers Direct, Fathering Involvement Research Alliance, Dads and Daughters, and the National Fatherhood Initiative.
A third way that father-perpetrated child maltreatment is being addressed is through intervention programs for men who have been violent toward their intimate partners. Many batterer intervention programs now include four to six sessions aimed at educating men on the effects of exposure to violence on children, on the importance of promoting safety for children, and on repairing father–child relations.
Finally, there have been efforts within child welfare services to better engage fathers. Major reports on child welfare practice have emphasized the importance of locating children’s biological fathers, involving fathers in child protection monitoring efforts, utilizing the strengths of fathers to support healthy child and family functioning, and providing intervention when fathers are perpetrators of abuse. A few treatment programs targeting the intervention needs of maltreating fathers have also been developed and are available in an increasingly large number of communities.
Little research has been done on the potential of any of these prevention or treatment programs to reduce child maltreatment.
- Coohey, C., & Zhang, Y. (2005). The role of men in chronic supervisory neglect. Child Maltreatment, 11, 27–33.
- Dubowitz, H. (2006). Where’s Dad? A need to understand father’s role in child maltreatment. Child Abuse & Neglect, 30, 461–465.
- Guterman, N. B., & Lee, Y. (2005). The role of fathers in risk for physical child abuse and neglect: Possible pathways and unanswered questions. Child Maltreatment, 10, 136–149.
- Scalera, M. B. (2001). An assessment of child welfare practices regarding fathers. Retrieved from http://www.nfpn.org/tools/articles/fathers.php
- Scott, K. L., & Crooks, C. V. (2006). Intervention for abusive fathers: Promising practices in court and community responses. Juvenile and Family Court Journal, 57(3), 29–44.
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