THE BLOG

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

06/26/2014 01:13 pm ET | Updated Aug 26, 2014
  • Joan Meier Professor of Clinical Law, George Washington University Law School, and Legal Director, DV LEAP. Specializes in domestic violence law.

Wilcox and Wilson's infamous op-ed "One way to end violence against women? Married dads", in The Washington Post's new online "Post Everything" section, may be a poster child for why a (heretofore) serious newspaper should not feature un-edited, un-reviewed opinion pieces. Like a background paper for the 1950s TV show Father Knows Best, the piece touts heterosexual marriage and biological fathers as the safest places for women and children. Since it was apparently posted without meaningful editorial review, it apparently falls to me to show why this piece epitomizes Twain's famous warning about the perils of blind reliance on statistics.

While numerous critics have attacked the piece's bizarre claim that women are safer from violence if they marry (just some are linked here, here, and here), W&W make another, even more problematic claim -- that children are safest with their biological fathers. This, they say, is the conclusion mandated from objective research data. Hmm.

First they assert that the National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect shows that girls and boys are significantly more likely to be abused when they are living in a cohabiting household with an unrelated adult -- usually their mother's boyfriend. Let's see what that study actually says:

Biological parents were the most closely related perpetrators for most children who were physically abused (71%), emotionally abused (73%), physically neglected (91%), emotionally neglected (90%), and educationally neglected (94%). In contrast, the most common perpetrators of sexual abuse were persons other than parents or parents' partners (40% of sexually abused children). Fewer children were sexually abused by a biological parent (37%) or by nonbiological parents or parents' partners (23%).

Further:

The large majority of countable children (77.5%) were maltreated by their in-home, biological parent(s), while in-home step-parents and other nonbiological parents (such as adoptive or foster parents), make up the next largest perpetrator categories (3.2% and 6.7%, respectively). Only small percentages of children were maltreated by an out-of-home biological parent (3.3%), by out-of-home nonbiological parent (0.1%), or by their parent's boyfriend or girlfriend (2.4%).

Remarkably, the data they rely on suggests quite the opposite of their sunny claims: Rather than demonstrating that biological fathers are far safer for children, this study shows that children (not "girls") are most often sexually abused by non parent figures, next often by biological parents, and fewest are sexually abused by non-biological parents or parents' partners. When the lens expands to all kinds of child abuse, children were maltreated by biological parents 75 percent more often than by a parent's boyfriend or girlfriend.

W&W also cite a 2005 study published in Pediatrics as finding that "[c]hildren residing in households with unrelated adults were nearly 50 times as likely to die of inflicted injuries than children residing with two biological parents." The study does say this. However, the study ALSO says that, of the perpetrators of child homicide, "most were the child's father (34.9%) or the boyfriend of the child's mother (24.2%)." And unlike W&W, the study authors take pains to make clear that the risk differential does not mean that, overall, biological fathers are safer. "It is important to note that although the relative risk is greater in households with unrelated adults, the most common male perpetrator of fatal inflicted injury was the child's biological father . . ."

The study goes on to explain that when children are killed it is usually by a male "adult caregiver" who "lives in the home."

If, as W&W do, we want to treat correlation as causation, one would have to conclude from this that protective mothers should neither marry nor live with men, if they want to raise children.

There is a kernel of truth in the Wilcox and Wilson claim: It appears that the studies do find that an individual child's risk is higher with unrelated men than with their married fathers, even though, numerically, more children die (and are abused) at the hands of biological fathers. This is surprising, and warrants a closer look, given that it is hard to believe that even though so many fewer children are victimized by boyfriends, the risks are so much higher. The risk claim, however, is at least supported by the research. But W&W's larger and more provocative claim is that marriage and biological fatherhood is "protective." As leading scholar and expert on violence against women Evan Stark says, this is like saying that the risks are lower if one enters the cave where the bear is sleeping than the one where the bear is awake.

Unfortunately, W&W's rosy pablum is precisely the type of thinking that is putting children in harm's way every day, in the nation's family courts. At DV LEAP we constantly receive pleas from women who are fighting to keep their children safe in custody litigation against fathers who have abused them or their children. Many judges and mental health professionals do not find abuse claims credible when reported by a mother or children against a respectable, well-presenting husband and father. Empirical data collected as part of a DV LEAP pilot study shows that in the vast majority of cases where mothers allege the father was abusive, they lose custody to that father: specifically where child sexual abuse is alleged -- 81%; child abuse -- 69%; and domestic violence -- 73%. In half of the last (domestic violence) group, the fathers won custody even though the abuse allegation was validated. The majority of these cases involved formerly married parents.

Why is this happening? There are many reasons -- but one fundamental one is that courts are so wedded (ouch) to the idea that fathers who fight for custody must be good and genuinely caring.

The "protective parent" advocacy community has documented hundreds of cases where fathers have killed their children after family courts rejected the mothers' pleas to limit their access. This has happened in Maryland alone to four young children in the last five years, in the tragic Castillo and Prince Rams cases.

Society needs to come to grips with the reality of the risks some fathers pose for children -- and put away the childish fantasy that Fathers Know Best.