Journal Issue: Preventing Child Maltreatment Volume 19 Number 2 Fall 2009
Causes of Maltreatment
The field of child maltreatment has three primary approaches to child abuse and neglect and the underlying causes. The first is what Jay Belsky and Joan Vondra call the parent’s contribution.24 At the most fundamental level, researchers who focus on the parent’s contribution explore the ways in which adults who maltreat children differ from those who do not. The underlying propensity to abuse may be a function of psychodynamic processes or social learning.25 Recent research also suggests that whether a parent is neglectful may have a genetic component.26 The point here is that the reasons why certain parents maltreat children have to be considered in designing preventive programs.
A second approach to understanding maltreatment focuses on what might be called the child’s contribution.27 Sometimes thought of as a bi-directional influence, the idea is that characteristics of children shape parental behavior. For example, rates of reported maltreatment for low-birth-weight babies are higher than rates for normal-weight babies, perhaps because low-birth-weight babies require more attention from their caretakers and thus may add to the strain a parent experiences.28 Janet Mann reported that infants who are less likely to survive are more likely to be neglected, if the parent has limited resources.29 In a similar vein, Daphne Bugental and Keith Happaney found that at-medical-risk infants are more likely to be treated harshly by their mothers, especially by mothers who feel a low level of control.30
The third approach focuses on the contribution of social context. This perspective places children and families within a series of nested contexts that extend out from the family and encompass the neighborhood and the larger society.31 This approach suggests that the attributes of the community—contextual effects—influence child well-being and parent behavior in ways that are distinct from, but interactive with, parent and child contributions.32 Poverty (for example, concentrated urban poverty) is one neighborhood attribute that has received a great deal of attention from researchers examining child maltreatment.33