Academic journal article Social Work Research

Community-Level Factors and Child Maltreatment in a Suburban County

Academic journal article Social Work Research

Community-Level Factors and Child Maltreatment in a Suburban County

Article excerpt

The research discussed in this article examined the relationship between neighborhood structural factors and child maltreatment report rates in a suburban county through replication of a method used in a study of child maltreatment in Cleveland, Ohio. Rates of child maltreatment were calculated for the county's 159 census tracts. Principal components analysis of 11 variables hypothesized to represent structural features of community social organization produced three factors, instability, economic disadvantage, and family characteristics. The three factors, plus interaction terms, accounted for 43.6 percent of the variance in the rates of child maltreatment. Comparison with the Cleveland results revealed differences in the role of instability in predicting neighborhood level maltreatment rates.

Key words: aggregate analysis; child maltreatment; neighborhood

Current explanations for child maltreatment focus on interacting individual, family, and neighborhood factors and suggest that neighborhoods have etiological significance (National Research Council, 1993). Although interest in neighborhood influences on child maltreatment has increased, research that seeks to uncover the relationship between neighborhoods and child maltreatment has lagged behind research into individual and family correlates.

Two complementary theoretical frameworks suggest that neighborhood characteristics are connected to child maltreatment. The ecological perspective suggests that a family's immediate social context helps determine whether maltreatment occurs. Ecological models treat families as embedded in neighborhoods and communities that are shaped by social, political, economic, and demographic factors. They suggest that some families are at greater risk of abusing and neglecting their children because of the neighborhood in which they live. A neighborhood, which encompasses both physical environment and social networks, is a setting for informal networks and formal organizations that provide behavioral norms, support, identity, and status for the individuals living there (Gephart, 1997). The rate of child maltreatment is one indicator of how families adapt to and are affected by environmental and socioeconomic factors; it is an indicator of the quality of life in a neighborhood

Community social organization, defined as "the patterns and functions of formal and informal networks and institutions and organizations in a locale", as cited by Coulton et al., 1995), connects a neighborhood's macrostructural characteristics (that is, poverty, economic decline, residential mobility, and family disruption) with behaviors such as child maltreatment. Research that uses this framework has linked community variation in juvenile delinquency and crime rates to economic status, ethnic heterogeneity, residential mobility, population density, housing density, family disruption, and rates of community change (for discussion, see Sampson, 1992, 1993). High residential mobility, family disruption, and an absence of community structures that support and oversee families in stress are more likely to affect low-income neighborhoods.

Research based on these theoretical frameworks suggests that neighborhoods are etiologically significant to child maltreatment (Coulton et al., 1995; Garbarino, 1977; Garbarino, 1981; Garbarino & Kostelny, 1992; Garbarino & Sherman, 1980; Zuravin, 1989). Most neighborhood- and community-level studies of child maltreatment are based on the ecological model and analytic methods espoused by Garbarino and his associates. These studies have examined the distribution and correlates of child maltreatment across geographic units, such as counties, zip code areas, and census tracts. They have shown that variations in child maltreatment rates at the neighborhood and community level are associated with such indicators of economic and social resources as poverty, population mobility, racial composition, and proportion of female-headed households. …

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