Battered child syndrome (BCS) has been defined as “the collection of injuries sustained by a child as a result of repeated mistreatment or beating.” If the injuries sustained by the child suggest that physical trauma was inflicted intentionally or if the injuries appear on examination to be more severe than one might expect to have reasonably been produced by accident, BCS may be indicated. These injuries typically have been inflicted by an adult caregiver. BCS also has been referred to as shaken baby syndrome, child abuse, and non-accidental trauma, but none of these terms accurately captures the repeated nature of the physical trauma to which BCS specifically refers.
Although the hallmark symptoms of BCS are physical trauma such as internal injuries, lacerations, burns, bruises, and broken or fractured bones, emotional and psychological problems also tend to characterize children for whom BCS is an accurate clinical descriptor. Emotional and psychological problems, in turn, can manifest as serious behavioral problems and disorders later in the child’s life, including alcohol abuse, narcotic abuse, and the physical and psychological abuse of others.
The incidence and prevalence of BCS are unclear but may characterize a majority of the nearly 14% of children in the United States who are physically abused each year. More specifically, in comparison to all other causes of child deaths, traumatic injury is the leading cause of child death. Nearly 2,000 of those children who are abused die as a result of this abuse, and for these children, BCS is particularly likely to be an accurate clinical label.
There are many theoretical frameworks that propose explanations for BCS. However, only one theoretical framework—evolutionary psychology— hypothesized and led to the knowledge that a particular parent-child relationship, namely, the stepparent stepchild relationship, poses the greatest risk that a child will be abused and perhaps eventually display BCS. Research hypotheses derived from socioecological theoretical models purport that BCS can be explained in terms of the integration of individual factors and social contexts, referred to as sociosituational models. But residence with a stepparent was not identified among those individual factors or social contexts. Research hypotheses derived from family systems theory propose that family relationships function as a set of systems and subsystems. According to family systems theory, the formation of a stepfamily creates a disruption of the expected system and hence leads to negative outcomes, including child abuse and BCS. Because step parental behavioral and legal responsibilities to stepchildren are fewer than the behavioral and legal responsibilities of genetic parents to their children, stepparents are at increased risk for abusing their stepchildren. This logic does not provide a complete explanation for why the risk of BCS is higher in stepfamilies, however.
Although previous research has found that stepparents report feeling unprepared for the new parental duties, stepchildren have been documented to feel adamant about a stepparent not “filling the shoes” of their genetic parent. Daly and Wilson argue that it is not that stepparents do not know what their role is as a stepparent, but instead that they do not want to do what is expected of them—invest in children unrelated to them, without receiving the benefits associated with investing in children of their own. Regardless of one’s theoretical perspective, it is agreed that BCS is an important social problem that demands the attention of thoughtful scholars and the research efforts of behavioral and social scientists.
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