Family and neighborhood contexts of child maltreatment
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As demographic trends in union formation and fertility have drastically reshaped U.S. families, the attention of researchers and policymakers has focused on the implications of such changes for children’s wellbeing. Most of that work has suggested negative consequences across a variety of outcomes, with recent studies exploring child maltreatment as an extreme danger to wellbeing. In addition to the risk factors associated with family instability and maltreatment, sources of support and resilience—within families as well as the communities in which they live—are also of interest to scholars and policymakers seeking to reduce and prevent the maltreatment of children. This dissertation, therefore, consists of three empirical studies that examine family contexts (family instability) and neighborhood contexts (collective efficacy) of child maltreatment among a diverse group of children and their primary caregivers. Informed by theories from sociology, criminology, developmental psychology, and social work, I used longitudinal, multilevel analyses to investigate: 1) the connection and underlying mechanisms between parents’ union transitions and trajectories of child maltreatment; 2) whether household composition is associated with the likelihood and frequency of two types of child maltreatment across neighborhoods with differing levels of collective efficacy; and 3) how changes in mothers’ co-residential partners alter the risk of child maltreatment based on men’s characteristics and the level of neighborhood collective efficacy. Across those three aims, this dissertation’s findings reveal that children’s family lives and their experiences of maltreatment are dynamic and multi-dimensional. Although family instability seems to increase child maltreatment, that association is nuanced in ways that depend on the type of instability and maltreatment considered. Furthermore, neighborhood collective efficacy can be a buffer that reduces some of the risks of child maltreatment that are associated with family instability. Taken as a whole, this dissertation identifies family contexts in which children may experience maltreatment as well as neighborhood contexts that can protect children and support families that may be struggling.