A national survey in the United Kingdom of the childhood experiences of young adults ages eighteen to twenty-four found that mothers were more likely than other household members to be violent toward their children. Child Maltreatment in the United Kingdom—A Study of the Prevalence of Child Abuse and Neglect (Pat Cawson, Corinne Wattam, Sue Brooker, and Graham Kelly, National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, London, England, November 20, 2000) was the most comprehensive report of childhood maltreatment ever conducted in that country, involving 2,869 interviews about young people's childhood experiences. Of the 11% of respondents who reported physical abuse, nearly half (49%) indicated that their mothers were the perpetrators of violence. Violence took the forms of knocking down the child, burning, threatening with a knife or a gun, kicking hard, shaking, or hitting with a fist or a hard implement. Another 40% of the respondents identified their attackers as their fathers.
Some Experts Say Social Factors Cause Abuse by Mothers
Straus and Smith, in "Family Patterns and Child Abuse," found that women are as likely, if not more likely, as men to abuse their children. The authors believed child abuse by women could be explained in terms of social factors rather than psychological factors. Women are more likely to abuse their children because they are more likely to have much greater responsibility for raising the children, which means that they are more exposed to the trials and frustrations of child rearing.
Women spend more "time at risk" while tending to their children. "Time at risk" refers to the time a potential abuser spends with the victim. This would apply to any form of domestic violence, such as spousal abuse and elder abuse. For example, elderly people are more likely to experience abuse from each other, not from a caregiver, if one is present. This is not because elderly couples are more violent than caregivers, but because they spend more time with each other.
Risk Factors and Chronic Child Maltreatment by Mothers
To determine the connection between psychological risk factors for child maltreatment and chronic maltreatment, researchers conducted interviews and tests of a group of abusive mothers in Quebec, Canada, on three separate occasions: during the initial recruitment for an intervention program, two years later at the end of the program, and four years after the initial recruitment as a follow-up (Louise S. Ethier, Germain Couture, and Carl Lacharité, "Risk Factors Associated with the Chronicity of High Potential for Child Abuse and Neglect," Journal of Family Violence, vol. 19, no. 1, February 2004). Fifty-six mothers were evaluated: twenty-one mothers whose files at the social agencies had been closed for at least four months (transitory problems group) and thirty-five mothers who were still abusive (chronic group). The risk factors were categorized into two general groups: the mother's history and her characteristics as an adult. The mother's history included placement in foster care, childhood sexual abuse, running away from home in her teens, break-ups with parental relationships, parental unavailability, neglect, and physical violence. The mother's adult characteristics included family unemployment, limited social support, past intimate partner violence, low level of intellectual functioning, low level of education, and high numbers of children and partners.
Ethier et al. found that mothers who reported a history of childhood sexual abuse, placement in foster care, and running away from home during adolescence were more likely to have chronic problems of child maltreatment. Overall, mothers exhibiting more than eight risk factors had about four times the risk for chronic child maltreatment. Those with a history of childhood sexual abuse had 3.75 times more risk of having chronic child maltreatment than those without this risk factor. The risk for chronic child maltreatment was 3.57 times for a childhood history of placement in foster care and 3.02 times for a history of running away from home in adolescence. The study also found that the following risk factors predispose mothers to chronic child maltreatment: childhood neglect (0.58 times more likely than those without this risk factor), physical violence (0.69 times), and unavailability of and break-up with parental figures (0.92 and 1.54 times, respectively). The authors concluded that traumatic experiences of childhood sexual abuse (77.8% of mothers in the study), placement in foster care (80%), and running away from home during adolescence (77.3%) had adverse effects on the mothers' ability to parent their children.
Results also showed that mothers with a low level of intelligence were 2.75 times more at risk for chronic child maltreatment. A total of 78.6% of the mothers showed such risk. However, the researchers cautioned that some studies have found that unless a parent's IQ (Intelligence Quotient) is below sixty, his or her low level of intelligence does not impair parenting abilities. Still other studies say IQ has nothing to do with parental competence. Mothers with a large family were found to have 3.13 times more risk for chronic maltreatment, with 80% of the sample displaying such risk.