Div. 37 Dissertation Award winner
<image>Jessica Dym Bartlett, MSW, PhD is a researcher, program evaluator, psychotherapist, instructor, and trainer with over 20 years of experience working with and on behalf of young children and their families. She has worked in the fields of infant/early childhood mental health, Early Intervention, child welfare, home visiting, family systems therapy, developmental research, and program evaluation. As an adjunct faculty member at the Boston University School of Social Work and Lasell College, she has taught courses on resilience, human behavior, and clinical work with children and adolescents, and developmental psychology. Dr. Bartlett’s research focuses on resilience in young children who face adversities such as child abuse and neglect, parental mental illness, and poverty. She is currently Project Director of Research and Evaluation at Brazelton Touchpoints Center at Boston Children’s Hospital. She received a Masters degree and Doctoral degree in child development from Tufts University, and a Masters degree in social work from Simmons College.
Young Mothers, Infant Neglect, and Discontinuities in Intergenerational Cycles of Maltreatment
Infant neglect is the most common form of child maltreatment and arguably poses the greatest threat to children’s well-being, yet it has received limited public attention. In 2010, approximately 754,000 children in the U.S. were victims of abuse and neglect, jointly referred to as child maltreatment. Over three-quarters (78%) of these children suffered neglect, a figure that far exceeded physical abuse, sexual abuse, and psychological abuse combined. Neglect occurs most often during infancy, when children are most vulnerable to its effects, including impairment in physical, cognitive, and socioemotional development. Infant neglect also causes the majority of maltreatment-related deaths, half of which occur within a child’s first year of life. Despite its high incidence, research on the etiology of infant neglect is scarce and the evidence base is not yet adequate to advance prevention efforts. Prior studies suggest that a parental history of childhood maltreatment is an especially potent risk factor for child abuse and neglect in the next generation, but little is known about what factors influence continuity and discontinuity in intergenerational parenting processes associated with early neglect. Although there is scientific consensus that the majority of parents who were abused or neglected as children do not maltreat their own children, additional research is needed to clarify what factors in particular help parents break the cycles of maltreatment that lead to infant neglect.
With the aim of informing child maltreatment prevention, this dissertation study examined moderators and mediators of the relation between a maternal childhood history of maltreatment and risk for neglect among 447 young mothers (<21 years at first birth) and their infants (<30 months). Neglect risk was assessed using four parenting measures: (a) reports of neglect substantiated by state child protective services, (b) maternal self-reports of neglect, (c) maternal sensitivity, and (d) maternal empathy. The results of this investigation supported the theory of intergenerational transmission, but affirmed the findings from previous studies that most mothers who were victims of maltreatment break the cycle with their own children. Patterns of maltreatment in the sample differed by type (neglect, physical abuse, multiple type maltreatment) and measurement methodology (substantiated reports, maternal self-reports). Substantiated reports suggested that infants were neglected most often (16 percent of the sample), but self-reports indicated that physical abuse was more common (21 percent of the sample). Discontinuity was higher for substantiated reports than selfreports (77 percent versus 67 percent). Multivariate results controlling for maternal demographic factors revealed significant findings for substantiated reports of neglect and for maternal empathy, but not for selfreported neglect. Maternal age at birth moderated the relation between mothers’ childhood history of neglect and infant neglect, and between mothers’ childhood history of multiple maltreatment and maternal sensitivity. In addition, social support moderated the relation between childhood neglect and maternal empathy. Access to social support had a greater buffering effect on young mothers’ risk for neglecting their infants when they had a childhood history of neglect than when they had no childhood history of maltreatment. That is, levels of maternal empathy were higher among adolescents who had frequent access to social support, an effect that was strongest for adolescents who had been neglected as children. Significant mediation effects were not found. Study findings highlight resilience in parenting despite risk for infant neglect, but underscore the context specificity of protective processes. In particular, factors that support discontinuity intergenerational transmission are unique to maltreatment type.