Stepfathers are no more likely to be responsible for child deaths than biological parents, a new study has found.
It challenges a long-held belief that children are more likely to be abused if they are looked after by one or more stepparent – a link known as the ‘Cinderella effect’.
Instead, scientists suggest age is a much better predictor of their likelihood to abuse children, with young men showing higher rates than older parents.
Stepfathers are no more likely to be responsible for child deaths than biological parents, a new study has found. It challenges a long-held belief that children are more likely to be abused if they are looked after by one or more stepparent (stock image)
WHAT IS THE CINDERELLA EFFECT?
The ‘Cinderella effect’ is a theory first proposed by psychologists during the 1970s.
It claims children are more likely to be murdered or suffer abuse when they have stepparents than if they are looked after by two genetic parents.
Those supporting the theory claim stepfathers have no genetic reason to invest parental resources in a child they are not biologically related to.
This means they are more likely to maltreat, abuse or even kill these children.
Many psychologists have criticised the theory, arguing that it lacks hard evidence to support the claims.
Around 20 children in England and Wales are killed by their fathers each year – and stepfathers are the perpetrators in a quarter of these cases.
Researchers at the University of East Anglia set out to investigate the cause of the high proportion of stepfathers linked to these deaths.
They reviewed data from the UK Home Office Homicide Index between 2000 and 2015 and compared it with detailed population data from three large surveys.
When looking at children between birth and 17 years, researchers found only a small difference between stepfathers’ and genetic fathers’ rates of homicide.
The team also looked at the ages of the fathers implicated in child homicides.
They found that most men convicted of child murder were relatively young.
This fact was true of both stepfathers and genetically-related parents.
‘In general, the data indicates that younger fathers are more likely to abuse or kill their children than older fathers, regardless of whether they are stepfathers,’ said Dr Gavin Nobes, who led the study.
‘Also, the population surveys show that stepfathers are, on average, much younger than genetic fathers.
‘This means that the Cinderella effect can be at least partly explained by stepfathers’ relative youth, rather than not being genetically related to their victims.
‘There are many possible reasons for the link between parental age and child maltreatment — young parents are more likely to be on low incomes, perhaps less well-educated and possibly less equipped to cope with the stresses of parenthood.’
Another reason the Cinderella effect continues to attract attention is that individuals responsible for violence against children are sometimes recorded as a ‘stepfather’ for convenience, even when they are not.
Around 20 children in England and Wales are killed by their fathers each year – and stepfathers are the perpetrators in a quarter of these cases. Researchers set out to investigate the cause of the high proportion of stepfathers linked to these deaths (stock image)
These may be short term or casual partners of the child’s mother, with no significant relationship to the child.
These men might not even be living with the family.
The researchers said practitioners and support workers should identify and support families when both the father and child are young – particularly in the first year of their relationship.
They should also focus on cases where the father, or mother’s partner, does not live with the child.
‘Child abuse researchers and social workers already understand that there are many complex causes of child abuse and these can be extremely difficult to predict,’ said Dr Nobes.
‘Our research offers a fresh perspective on the available data which could help practitioners and policy makers decide where to channel resources when supporting families.
‘In particular, rather than assuming that stepfathers are more dangerous than genetic fathers, other factors – such as both father and child being young, and their not living together – are actually better predictors of whether a child is at risk of being abused or killed.’
The findings were published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.