The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

Child Maltreatment and Housing

Recent studies suggest that for many poor families housing remains a serious problem. Despite the economic recovery, the need for affordable housing still outstrips the demand. Eviction and homelessness are common, with several million families evicted each year.

Now, new research examines how housing problems affect the treatment of children. A study published in the March 2015 Social Service Review, called “Housing Insecurity, Maternal Stress, and Child Maltreatment: An Application of the Family Stress Model,” reports that housing insecurity, including homelessness, evictions, and a lack of affordable housing, increases significantly the risk of child maltreatment.

Emily Warren, a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Sarah Font, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin’s Population Research Center, examined data on 4,755 children and their families from the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study, a longitudinal study that began in 1999 in 20 cities. They discovered that the lack of affordable housing slightly increased the risk of child abuse and neglect. (Families lacked affordable housing if they spent half or more of their incomes on rent.)

The risk of maltreatment rose still more when the authors looked at instability in housing. Housing instability included evictions, homelessness, or moving more than once a year. Warren and Font found that housing instability puts children at a 12 percent greater risk of neglect and a 5 percent greater risk of abuse.

Much of the increased risk of neglect and abuse can be explained by the additional stress that housing troubles place on mothers. And yet some risk has to do with the conditions of housing insecurity themselves. For example, Warren says, children might suffer from living in housing that is overcrowded, from sharing quarters with people who use drugs or engage in other kinds of behavior inappropriate for children, or from living in substandard housing that lacks proper heat.

She says her and Font’s research points to the need for social workers to pay closer attention to the link between housing problems and the maltreatment of children and to cooperate more closely with housing providers.

Warren, Emily J. and Font, Sarah A. “Housing Insecurity, Maternal Stress, and Child Maltreatment: An Application of the Family Stress Model.” Social Service Review 89 (1): 9-39.