Risk Factors for Paternal Physical Child Abuse

Publication Year


Journal Article

This study uses the developmental–ecological framework to examine a comprehensive set of paternal factors hypothesized to be linked to risk for paternal child abuse (PCA) among a diverse sample of fathers. Attention was given to fathers’ marital status and their race/ethnicity (White, African American, and Hispanic).

Interviews were conducted with 1257 married or cohabiting biological fathers who participated in the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study. PCA was assessed when the index children were 3 years old. Analyses included a comprehensive set of self-reported paternal variables as well as controls for maternal variables linked to child maltreatment. PCA was measured using proxy variables: two questions assessing the frequency of spanking in the past month and Parent–Child Conflict Tactics Scales (CTS-PC) [Straus, M., Hamby, S., Finkelhor, D., Moore, D., & Runyan, D. (1998). Identification of child maltreatment with the parent-child conflict tactics scales: Development and psychometric data for a national sample of American parents. Child Abuse & Neglect, 22, 249–270] psychological and physical aggression subscales.

Bivariate results indicated that Hispanic fathers were the least likely to spank or engage in psychological or physical aggression. Multiple regression analyses indicated that paternal employment and earnings were not significantly associated with PCA. Compared to cohabiting African American fathers, married African American fathers were found to be at greater risk for some forms of PCA. This pattern was not found for White or Hispanic families.

In this diverse sample of involved, biological fathers, there appear to be multiple potential risk-heightening pathways that vary across race/ethnic groups. With the proper control variables, paternal employment and earnings may not be as directly linked to fathers’ physical abuse risk as has been previously thought.

Practice implications
There is a need for interventions within the child welfare system that better promote family wellbeing by including fathers in services. Patterns linking paternal socio-demographic and psychosocial factors to psychological and physical child abuse varied as a function of paternal race/ethnicity, indicating that race/ethnic differences are among the important factors that intervention efforts should take into account.

Child Abuse and Neglect