April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month.
A step-daughter or step-son is much more likely to suffer child abuse or even murder—sometimes as much as a hundred times more likely—than is a child who is the offspring of the two parents. This shocking pattern holds pretty much around the world and can best be explained by the tendency of parents to further the well-being of those related to them genetically, in line with the premises of sociobiology and evolution.
Many Asian-American women were born overseas and adopted by couples here in the United States. Often—as did the heroine of the true-life novel Chasing China, by Kay Bratt—they avidly seek out information about their birth parents, and they feel mixed emotions about having been adopted. There is even a web site, http://adopteerage.blogspot.com, “written for the 38% of abused and neglected adopted children.”
While statistics on abuse of adoptees are hard to find, the lack of genetic connection suggests that abuse of adoptees might be as frequent as that of step-children. Alternatively, although adoptees usually have no genetic relationship to their adoptive parents, the motives for adopting may be more generous toward these children than the motives for marrying [or “living with” a parent] and becoming a step-parent.
More broadly, some of the issues associated with adoption logically extend to children of our far-too-numerous broken marriages, where fathers [and, less often, mothers] are long gone and “lovers” take the place of spouses.
I know first-hand what it is like to be a step-child and what it is like to be a step-parent. A step-child is often treated less well than the other children in the family. As a step-parent, I was especially careful not to exert quite the degree of parental authority toward my step-son as I might have otherwise exerted toward a child I fathered. Fortunately, I received the gift of a wonderful, lovable two-year-old boy when I married Tina Su, and Phil and I have been as close as one could wish these past 31 years.
My interest in the problem of child abuse by step-parents grew primarily from my work in co-authoring with Mary Seaman her memoir Kidnapped Twice, where she tells of the brutal treatment she received from her step-mother. Unlike Cinderella, Mary’s life did not include Prince Charming; she left home as soon as she could, married someone unsuitable, and struggled for years with the psychological damage done by her mother’s abandonment, her father’s betrayal, and her step-mother’s savagery.
The hundred-fold increase in child abuse associated with step-parenting has been a major theme of the research work done by Professors Martin Daly and the late Margo Wilson. They presented their work in their 1998 book, The Truth about Cinderella, and defended its genetic / evolutionary arguments at length in a review article [Daly and Wilson, 2008].
I contacted Professor Daly—Professor Emeritus of Psychology, McMaster University, and Research Professor of Anthropology, University of Missouri—and he was so kind as to email me, and allow me to publish, his comments on step-parenting versus adoption as they relate to child abuse, as follows:
“…on the issue of risks to adoptees:
“This is a tougher question to address with any precision than that of risks to stepchildren because estimates of the proportions adopted in the population-at-large have been unreliable, at least until recently. However, I think it’s pretty clear that children adopted by non-relatives do not suffer anywhere near the degree of excess statistical risk that faces step-children, and possibly no excess risk at all.
“I have often heard it suggested that, as you say, ‘Two parents
not related to the child would seem to raise the risk’ and some people seem to think that the relative safety of adoptees therefore demolishes the evolution-minded perspective. I think that’s silly, for the reason you also mention, namely that ‘the reasons for adopting are often different from those for becoming a step-parent.’
“More specifically, adoptees differ from step-children in the following ways:
(1) adoptive families are more affluent than average (and poverty is a separate risk factor for child maltreatment);
(2) adoptive parents tend to be older than average (and parental youth is a separate risk factor for child maltreatment) and, more importantly,
(3) adoptive parents actively SOUGHT their in loco parentis status, whereas step-parents usually became stepparents as an (unwelcome)byproduct of a remarriage, and, MOST importantly,
(4) candidate adoptive parents are SCREENED! This is absolutely crucial because they are screened specifically to detect and thwart those applications that might be exploitative, as adoptions have so often been when they are NOT regulated. In the past, we know that people frequently adopted children as household servants, farm labor, shop apprentices, etc. (not to mention as sex toys) and that adoptees were not generally invested in like birth children, receiving little education, for example, and often having no marital prospects.
“The modern phenomenon of ‘adoption by stranger’ (i.e., non-kin) is a true novelty, characteristic of no ‘traditional’ society, and it’s extremely interesting.
Although adoption undoubtedly enriches the lives of great numbers of children and their adoptive parents, I think it is still an open question just how successful ‘adoptions by stranger’ are at delivering the satisfactions of family life.”
Lacking reliable information on the incidence of child abuse toward adoptees in America, especially in interracial situations, we are left hoping that their treatment has been better than that suffered by step-children. Hopefully, such investigations will be carried out, and the fate of adoptees will be found not to be as grim.
A measure of the level of civilization of a society is its treatment of those least able to defend themselves, their children.
Dr. Cooper is a retired scientist, now a writer and writing coach. The first book he authored, Ting and I: A Memoir of Love, Courage and Devotion, was published by Outskirts Press in 2011 and is available from Outskirts Press, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble, as are two memoirs he co-authored, The Shield of Gold and Kidnapped Twice, and two memoirs he edited, High Shoes and Bloomers and But…at What Cost. On Twitter, he is @douglaswcooper. His writing-editing-coaching site is http://writeyourbookwithme.com.
Reference: Daly M. & Wilson M. (2008) Is the “Cinderella effect” controversial? A case study of evolution-minded research and critiques thereof. Pp. 381-398 in C.B. Crawford & D. Krebs, eds., Foundations of Evolutionary Psychology. Mahwah NJ: Erlbaum.