The Dark Underbelly of Cohabitation

The Ledger Dispatch carries an AP story from AP writer David Crary on the “dark underbelly of cohabitation”:

Every case is different, every family is different. Some single mothers bring men into their lives who lovingly help raise children when the biological father is gone for good.

Nonetheless, many scholars and front-line caseworkers who monitor America’s families see the abusive-boyfriend syndrome as part of a broader trend that deeply worries them. They note an ever-increasing share of America’s children grow up in homes without both biological parents, and say the risk of child abuse is markedly higher in the nontraditional family structures.

“This is the dark underbelly of cohabitation,” said Brad Wilcox, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia. “Cohabitation has become quite common, and most people think, ‘What’s the harm?’ The harm is we’re increasing a pattern of relationships that’s not good for children.”

The findings on the risk to children in these coahabitative situations is alarming:

-Children living in households with unrelated adults are nearly 50 times as likely to die of inflicted injuries as children living with two biological parents, according to a study of Missouri abuse reports published in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2005.

-Children living in stepfamilies or with single parents are at higher risk of physical or sexual assault than children living with two biological or adoptive parents, according to several studies co-authored by David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center.

-Girls whose parents divorce are at significantly higher risk of sexual assault, whether they live with their mother or their father, according to research by Robin Wilson, a family law professor at Washington and Lee University.

Why is this?

“It comes down to the fact they don’t have a relationship established with these kids,” she said. “Their primary interest is really the adult partner, and they may find themselves more irritated when there’s a problem with the children.”

The article features several chilling stories of abuse from live-in boyfriends. Here is just one:

In July 2006, his mother’s boyfriend, Phillip Guymon, hurled the 2-year-old nine feet across a room in Murray, Utah, because he balked at going to bed. The child died from his injuries.

Obviously not all cohabitative arrangements end up like this. But the increased risk is scary.

When marriage and family advocates speak against divorce, cohabitation, and having children outside of marriage, they aren’t trying to spoil people’s fun or be fuddie-duddies. There are compelling, important practical reasons for the moral structures we’ve traditionally lived under in our Judeo-Christian heritage: they protect us all–especially innocent, defenseless children–from hurtful and potentially deadly situations.

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