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Child Youth Serv Rev. 2011 Sep;33(9):1638-1647.

Toward a cumulative ecological risk model for the etiology of child maltreatment.

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  • 1Columbia University.
  • 2University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  • 3Johns Hopkins University.


The purpose of the current study was to further the integration of cumulative risk models with empirical research on the etiology of child maltreatment. Despite the well-established literature supporting the importance of the accumulation of ecological risk, this perspective has had difficulty infiltrating empirical maltreatment research and its tendency to focus on more limited risk factors. Utilizing a sample of 842 mother-infant dyads, we compared the capacity of individual risk factors and a cumulative index to predict maltreatment reports in a prospective longitudinal investigation over the first sixteen years of life. The total load of risk in early infancy was found to be related to maternal cognitions surrounding her new role, measures of social support and well-being, and indicators of child cognitive functioning. After controlling for total level of cumulative risk, most single factors failed to predict later maltreatment reports and no single variable provided odd-ratios as powerful as the predictive power of a cumulative index. Continuing the shift away from simplistic causal models toward an appreciation for the cumulative nature of risk would be an important step forward in the way we conceptualize intervention and support programs, concentrating them squarely on alleviating the substantial risk facing so many of society's families.


child abuse and neglect; cumulative risk; ecological model; maltreatment; transactional model

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