The Ecology of Child Abuse and Neglect: Review of the Literature and Presentation of Data

Article excerpt

This report assesses current knowledge about the ecological determinants of child maltreatment and presents data from an aggregate study of co-variation between seven community characteristics and maltreatment rates. A review of these findings revealed literature in the early stages of development. Nothing is known about the ecology of sexual abuse, and studies of physical abuse and neglect have done little more than demonstrate co-variation between reported incidence and neighborhood population and housing characteristics. Study findings reveal that (a) five of the seven community characteristics are significant and independent correlates of neglect, and four are correlates of abuse; (b) the strongest predictors of both types of maltreatment are percentage of families with income less than 200% of poverty and percent of vacant housing; and (c) the pattern of co-variation between the two economic stress indicators and three inadequate social support indicators are consistent with the ecological hypothesis. Discussion focuses on interpretation of findings and recommendations for future research.

Since the mid-1970s, a resurgence of interest in ecological explanations of human behavior has occurred (Brim, 1975; Bronfenbrenner, 1977). One of the many subject areas whose theory base has been strongly influenced by this interest is child maltreatment. From its first application to child abuse and neglect (Garba-rino, 1976, 1977a, 1977b), ecological theory seized the imagination of maltreatment theorists (Belsky, 1980; Newberger, Newberger, & Hampton, 1983) and altered our understanding of the etiology of child maltreatment. Interestingly enough, however, it has not had the same strong impact on those carrying out research as those who formulate theory. Empirical knowledge regarding the contextual determinants of child abuse and neglect is at an early developmental level: research has focused almost exclusively on determining whether community characteristics and community child maltreatment rates co-vary. Given the rather widespread interest in ecological interpretations of child maltreatment, further research is clearly in order. This article reviews ecological theory as it is applied to child maltreatment, summarizes the existing state of empirical knowledge, and presents some data on the contextual correlates of child abuse and neglect.


An ecological explanation of human behavior posits that "the development of specified characteristics of families and/or individuals can be attributed to influences emanating from the community as a whole or from one or more of its constituent subsystems" (Bronfenbrenner, Moen, & Garbarino, 1984, p. 285). Relative to child maltreatment, this means that at least some families and children are at high risk for child maltreatment while living in certain neighborhoods and at less risk while living in others. Community characteristics like economic status, housing status, population change, unemployment rate, and so forth typically affect individual and family risk for particular behaviors through two main conduits: informal social networks (i.e., groups of kin, friends, and neighbors), and formal social networks (i.e., community organizations and institutions like churches, social service agencies, and so forth). These networks shape behavior in two important ways: (a) they help to reduce stress by providing material and emotional support, and (b) they control behavior-that is, they promote group values-by providing feedback and exercising sanctions. Child maltreatment is more likely to occur in socially impoverished neighborhoods in which individuals and families are not embedded in social networks, or are isolated from each other (Garbarino, 1981).

As might be expected, not all families are equally vulnerable to the effects of neighborhood. Low-income individuals and families, because they are at greater risk for experiencing a wider range of stresses more intensely and for longer periods of time than higher income families, have a greater need for the types of assistance provided by informal and formal support networks. …