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How addiction, divorce, joblessness lead to childhood abuse

A pedestrian passes a job centre in London on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012.

Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

When a parent struggles with addiction, long-term unemployment or divorce, kids get hurt, too. More than a third of adults who grew up in homes with all three risk factors report suffering childhood physical abuse, a study of 26,000 Canadians has found. Compared to other adults, those raised by parents dealing with addiction, unemployment and divorce were 10 times more likely, when they were children, to have been physically abused by someone close to them.

Although risk factors such as long-term unemployment and addiction are known to have negative effects on kids, the researchers say they were astonished by the magnitude of their combined effect.

A tenfold risk is highly unusual in social-science research, says Esme Fuller-Thomson, a professor of social work at the University of Toronto and author of the study, which was published online this week in the journal Child: Care, Health and Development. After analyzing data from a 1995 Statistics Canada report on 13,000 Canadians, she and co-author Jami-Leigh Sawyer, a doctoral candidate in the faculty of social work, crunched the numbers again using a separate cohort of 13,000 Manitobans and Saskatchewanians surveyed in a 2005 Statscan report.

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"The findings were remarkably consistent," Fuller-Thomson says, "and it's very worrisome."

In adults with none of the risk factors, the rate of childhood physical abuse was 3.4 per cent. That number jumped to 10.7 per cent in adults of divorced parents, 9.7 per cent if a parent faced long-term unemployment and 19.5 per cent if a parent had an addiction. When two of the risk factors were present, between 25 and 30 per cent of adults reported they had been physically abused in childhood.

Fuller-Thomson notes it isn't clear whether addiction, unemployment or divorce were causes of abuse. For example, divorce might be the outcome of an abusive relationship that a parent ended to protect the child. Long-term unemployment may be a sign of other problems, including various disabilities. Similarly, an addicted parent may have been an abuser or simply unable to protect a child from abuse.

The severity of the abuse reported and the identity of the abusers are unknown, since the survey question about abuse was worded, simply: "Were you ever physically abused by someone close to you?"

But Fuller-Thomson says she is not concerned that respondents might have exaggerated their childhood experiences. In general, she says, researchers studying childhood physical abuse find "underreporting as opposed to overreporting."

Fuller-Thomson emphasizes that the number of adults who had faced all three risk factors as children was relatively small – about 1.5 per cent – and, of those, two-thirds did not experience physical abuse.

Currently, the World Health Organization does not recommend routine screening of children for abuse, due to the risk of investigations based on false indications of abuse, which are very disruptive for families, Fuller-Thomson explains.

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The new findings lay the groundwork for studies that would follow groups of children and determine abuse rates in those raised in households affected by addiction, unemployment and divorce. If these risk factors are firmly established as markers of abuse, they could be incorporated in a simple screening test used by professionals such as teachers and family doctors to flag children who may be victims of abuse, she says. "We're talking about the nation's children, so we should all be alert and aware of any potential abuse."

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