An Australian study of more than 900 coronial inquiries into child deaths from violence or accident appears to bear out theories of the so-called Cinderella effect.
Psychologist and researcher at Melbourne's Deakin University Greg Tooley said that despite sensitivities over the issue, the findings should not be ignored and child-welfare agencies needed to take it into account when assessing at-risk cases.
"It would be very good, I think, if an awareness of this were to lead to better targeted interventions," Dr Tooley told The Australian.
It was possible that sensitivities over targeting children with step-parents might be getting in the way of agencies identifying it as a risk factor, he said.
"It is certainly difficult to talk about because it is such a hot issue," he said.
Dr Tooley's study found that children with a step-parent were at least 17 times more likely to die from intentional violence or accident. A limited version of the study found that the rate could be as high as 77 times.
It found the risk was higher if there were no biological parents, such children being at least 22 times more prone. Most at risk were children under five.
Overall, Dr Tooley found that children with a single biological mother were no more at risk than children with both biological parents.
But he did find that children of single mothers were three times more at risk of drowning.
Dr Tooley said the findings appeared to back up theories that parents were biologically driven to be extremely protective of their offspring, less so than step-parents.
The theory has widespread parlance in folklore and fairytales, such as that of Cinderella, who is banished to cleaning duties by her jealous step-mother and sisters.
Dr Tooley stressed that the findings were not about attacking step-parents, but simply identifying risk factors.
"We have to look at the flipside, which is all the good that step-parents do," he said.
But he added: "I'd be disturbed if we didn't use the information. The vast majority of step-parents are outstanding, but they aren't as equipped with the same protective drive as a biological parent."
He speculates that this probably becomes more of a factor in child welfare when families are under stress. "I feel these factors are happening at the real edge when families are under a lot of pressure," he said.
Submitted by: Andrew Trounson *
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