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Cinderella Effect

May 8, 2008 permalink

A study by Australian researcher Greg Tooley has found that children in the care of substitute parents, usually stepparents, are at increased risk of death relative to natural parents. It is called the Cinderella effect. Tooley's work dealt with all accidental deaths, whether or not intentional. There are two measures of risk, depending on how some incomplete death reports are classified. The death rate for children with no natural parents, the situation in foster care, is either 6 or 37 times higher than the rate for children with two natural parents. Here is the paper by Tooley et al, (pdf, by email from Greg Tooley), and an earlier paper on the same topic by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson (pdf) of McMaster University. A press report on the research follows.



Young stepchildren at greater risk of violence

CHILDREN under five living with a non-biological or step-parent are up to 78 times more likely to die from a violence-related injury.

But these children are also up to 15 times more likely to die from unintentional causes such as road accidents, drowning, poisoning, falls and burns than those living with their biological families, Deakin University research shows.

Study author and psychologist Greg Tooley said parenting was a demanding role and parents generally did a very good job, and were not "evil".

But a review of more than 1000 coroners' cases between 2000 and 2003 found Australian figures mirrored overseas findings known as the Cinderella Effect.

That is where stepchildren are at dramatically raised risk of being victims of fatal accidents, as well as physical abuse and homicide.

Dr Tooley found children living with single mothers were no more likely to die from either violent or unintentional causes than those in biological families, except for accidental drownings, which were three times more likely.

But children living with neither biological parent, such as foster children and state wards, faced up to a 102 times greater risk of death.

Dr Tooley's research was testing an evolutionary theory that humans are genetically programmed to nurture and protect their own biological offspring more than others' children.

He found Australian data on accidental child deaths as well as homicide cases, especially in the most vulnerable 0-5 age group, matched the theory.

"There are times when a parent might be so distracted -- by work, fatigue, a conversation or another child -- that they momentarily drop their guard with respect to watching over their children," Dr Tooley said.

"Step-parents fill the parental role without the same set of parental drives triggered by becoming a biological parent.

"As such, it is simply more likely that given the same set of trying difficult circumstances, a step-parent will drop their guard or physically lash out at a child."

In the study, a step-parent was defined widely as the married, de facto or visiting partner of a biological parent.

For the purposes for the study, the relationship could last for years, weeks or even days.

Source: Melbourne Herald Sun

Correction: In the first version, we said: "The death rate for children with no natural parents, the situation in foster or adoptive care ... ". Mr Tooley's research had no data on adoptive parents.