Etiology

The etiology of child abuse and neglect is poorly understood, even within those nations that have the longest history of research and policy attention to the problem. More sophisticated etiological models stress the importance of an ecological framework, with risk and protective factors transacting across the ecological levels of individual factors, family factors, community factors, and factors in the larger sociocultural environment. These complex theoretical models, however, have rarely been adequately subjected to empirical testing and research (Cicchetti & Lynch, 1993; National Research Council, 1993).

A cross-cultural perspective has the potential to enhance understanding of the complex interaction of risk and protective factors that contribute to or prevent the occurrence of child maltreatment. It is not currently known whether common or divergent pathways lead to child maltreatment across diverse populations. For example, does the interaction of poverty and an individual history of child maltreatment have different consequences in different community contexts? Etiological factors should have explanatory power both within and between cultures.

The cross-cultural record sheds some light on categories of children at risk for maltreatment. Even in cultures in which children are highly valued and rarely punished, some children may receive a lesser standard of care than other children. These categories of children may be identifiable through demographic analyses that suggest differential survival by factors such as gender or birth order. Identification of categories of children at risk also requires knowledge of cultural values on specific child behaviors or traits (Korbin, 1987a).

Circumstances in which children have diminished social supports or in which social networks are lacking or deficient have also been suggested as increasing the risk of maltreatment. Social networks can act either to prevent child maltreatment or to exacerbate the risk of its occurrence. Social networks, on the one hand, provide the context for assistance with child care, for redistribution of children who may be at risk for maltreatment, and for the establishment, scrutiny, and enforcement of standards of child care and treatment. These functions of social networks should diminish the likelihood of child abuse and neglect. On the other hand, some abusive or neglectful families may be embedded in closely knit, but maladap-tive networks (Korbin, 1998). Abusive parents may engage with others whose child-rearing attitudes and behaviors are similar to their own. Networks in which attitudes and behaviors toward children tend toward the aggressive or neglectful may provide precisely the kind of role models that facilitate abuse. Network members may be hesitant to intervene or to report maltreatment because their own behavior is similar. They may be fearful that if they report others, they risk report themselves. In addition, network members may be isolated from community facilities and supports and therefore may not know how to access supports or services for themselves or for an abusive parent in their midst. Inequality of power between parents has also been implicated in the etiology of child abuse (Handwerker, 2001).

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