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Child abuse is primarily a problem within families.
While abuse by nonfamily members does occur, most victims are abused by one or more of their parents.
It is important to understand that the causes of child abuse and the characteristics of families in which child abuse occurs are only indicators.
Most parents, even in the most stressful and demanding situations, and even with a personal history that might predispose them to be more violent than parents without such a history, do not abuse their children. Straus and Christine Smith note in "Family Patterns and Child Abuse" (Straus and Gelles, Physical Violence in American Families: Risk Factors and Adaptations to Violence in 8,145 Families, 1989) that one cannot simply single out an individual factor as the cause of abuse.
The fourth family characteristic involves the "broken parent," who has not attained maturity and a feeling of self-worth because of a difficult past.
Straus and Smith find that a combination of several factors is more likely to result in child abuse than is a single factor alone.
Also, the sum of the effects of individual factors taken together does not necessarily add up to what Straus and Smith call the "explosive combinations" of several factors interacting with one another.
Nonetheless, even "explosive combinations" do not necessarily lead to child abuse. Hughes in the Field Guide to Child Welfare (1998), a family at high to moderate risk includes parents who do not understand basic child development and who may discipline inappropriately for the child's age; those who lack the necessary skills for caring for and managing a child; those who use physical punishment harshly and excessively; and those who do not appropriately supervise their children.
While it is impossible to determine whether child maltreatment will occur, generally a family may be at risk if the parent is young, has little education, has had several children born within a few years, and is highly dependent on social welfare. Furthermore, families under stress are more likely to produce abusive parents and abused or neglected children, such as during divorce or other problems with adult relationships, death, illness, disability, incarceration, or loss of a job, according to Rycus and Hughes.