Are children more likely to be abused by their stepparents?


When a two-year old child,Thaiya Spruill-Smith, was recently killed by her step-father, there was a debate about whether or not the child should have been with this man in the first place.   Her biological father had been fighting for custody of the child and was denied, leading some to blame the courts for her death.

Thaiya’s death has called for examinations of the legal system, as well as father’s rights.  Additionally, it has led some to wonder why so many children are abused and mistreated when they are either under foster care or the care of a step parent.  Not every step parent is abusive, but the data show that children are less safe when they are not with those who gave birth to them.  According to Cac

Family structure is the most important risk factor in child sexual abuse. Children who live with two married biological parents are at low risk for abuse. The risk increases when children live with step-parents or a single parent. Children living without either parent (foster children) are 10 times more likely to be sexually abused than children that live with both biological parents. Children who live with a single parent that has a live-in partner are at the highest risk: they are 20 times more likely to be victims of child sexual abuse than children living with both biological parents (Sedlack, et. al., 2010).

There are scientists who claim that children are safest under the protection of their biological parents, rather than step parents.  This is what is called The Cinderella Effect, named after the Disney fairytale in which a young woman is abused because she is the step child.  Much of the Cinderella Effect basically says that children of stepparents are more likely to be beaten, abused, neglected and mistreated by parents who are not their own.

From wikipedia:

“Powerful evidence in support of the Cinderella effect comes from the finding that when abusive parents have both step and genetic children, they generally spare their genetic children. In such families, stepchildren were exclusively targeted 9 out of 10 times in one study and in 19 of 22 in another.[5] In addition to displaying higher rates of negative behaviors (e.g., abuse) toward stepchildren, stepparents display fewer positive behaviors toward stepchildren than do the genetic parents. For example, on average, stepparents invest less in education, play with stepchildren less, take stepchildren to the doctor less, etc.[6] This discrimination against stepchildren is unusual compared to abuse statistics involving the overall population given “the following additional facts: (1) when child abuse is detected, it is often found that all the children in the home have been victimized; and (2) stepchildren are almost always the eldest children in the home, whereas the general (…) tendency in families of uniform parentage is for the youngest to be most frequent victims.”[3]


  1. LOled when I saw it in the paper today. But you've made relevant points here. Thought of it when I saw a traffic policeman and an auto driver take their 'breaks' into a drain. Off your read your posts abt CSA. It's so common and happening in so many families around us…and some ppl think it's some Western thing:(

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