For some young children, the person who poses the greatest potential threat isn’t the registered sex offender who lives a few streets over.
No, the danger may be much closer to home: mom’s boyfriend, especially if he lives with her. The problem even has a name: abusive-boyfriend syndrome.
On Wednesday, 19-year-old Jake Musga was charged with the first-degree murder of his girlfriend’s 2-year-old son, whom he was baby-sitting in a downtown Tacoma hotel. The child was killed by blunt force trauma to the head and abdomen. Musga also has been charged with raping the little boy.
If the authorities are correct, this tragedy would be an almost classic example of the syndrome – taken to its worst possible outcome. While many men capably take on the responsibility of being father figures to a partner’s offspring, others don’t have the maturity or temperament for a role that can tax the patience and self-control of even biological parents. When children behave as children sometimes do, the boyfriend may react by shaking, striking or otherwise harming the child.
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It’s a problem that has increasingly been seen with the decline of marriage among low-income and even middle-income parents. Couples are more likely to live together now – which means mom’s boyfriend may be more present in a child’s life than the biological father, who has often abdicated his responsibility.
Although the boyfriend may be around more than the father, he may not be heavily invested in the child’s welfare. His interest is in the mother, not another man’s child.
Children are also killed by their biological parents, and they may thrive in nontraditional families. But statistics do indicate that introducing a boyfriend into a single mother’s home can increase a child’s risk of abuse or death.
A 2011 federal study of child abuse found that the riskiest home situation for children was living with one parent and an unmarried partner: 57.2 per 1,000 were maltreated. That’s more than eight times the risk than if they were living with both biological parents (6.8 per 1,000) and more than double the risk of living in a single-parent household (28.4 per 1,000).
Mothers of young children need to be aware that a boyfriend – particularly one with emotional, drug or alcohol issues – may not be a good child-care option for an infant or toddler. Too many moms have learned that lesson too late.