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Dr. Katie Maguire Jack: Addressing a gap in the research on neighborhoods and child maltreatment

May 29, 2015

How does the environment of a neighborhood and its social cohesion affect the likelihood that a parent will abuse or neglect a child?

For years this has been a burgeoning field of investigation among researchers, and a principal topic of inquiry for Dr. Katie Maguire Jack of The Ohio State University College of Social Work. Now, in a significant shift, the third-year assistant professor is extending her research to an area that’s been mostly overlooked and vastly understudied, but one of potential importance to Ohio and states like it.Katie-Maguire-Jack

Child maltreatment is a serious public health problem in the United States. Kids who are abused or neglected are at greater risk of developmental delays, psychiatric disorders, and aggressive and antisocial behaviors. And as adults, they are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, suffer from depression and take part in criminal activity.

Numerous studies have documented a strong correlation between neighborhood poverty and child maltreatment, but the effects of other variables within a neighborhood –crime, racial makeup, turnover, access to child-care and other services — are less clear. Even less understood still is to what degree social aspects of a neighborhood play a role.

The body of research to date, though abundant, is glaringly narrow in one regard – it focuses almost exclusively on neighborhoods in major cities and urban centers. Research on rural communities has gone begging, though population statistics clearly point to the need.

In Ohio, 22 percent of residents – more than 2.5 million people — live in rural areas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Maine and Vermont, more than 61 percent of the population is rural, and by sheer numbers Texas, North Carolina and Pennsylvania have more rural residents than Ohio.

Maguire Jack’s latest study, an examination of parenting and family life in rural Ohio, begins to address this gap in the research.

Working with Dr. Bridget Freisthler of UCLA, Maguire Jack will undertake a pilot survey in Shelby County, on the western edge of the state. Of particular interest is whether the availability of social services and the interaction of neighbors provide any protective effect against child maltreatment. In earlier studies, conducted in urban areas of California and Ohio, Maguire Jack found evidence that suggests they do.

A fundamental challenge in developing the Shelby County study, given its rural setting, was defining the unit of geography to be used, in other words, determining what constitutes a “neighborhood” in an area where houses might be separated by vast distances.

Instead of relying on census tracts or political jurisdictions, common in urban studies, Maguire Jack and Freisthler will concentrate on what they call “personalized neighborhoods.” These are areas in which survey respondents most often travel – for instance, the activity space that includes a person’s job site, physician’s office, friend’s house, grocery store, pharmacy, gym, child-care provider, schools and so on.

As a step toward finalizing the format of the survey, Maguire Jack and Freisthler have created a draft questionnaire that will be distributed to 200 to 500 parents with children 12 and younger. The survey examines topics at both the family and community level, including economic hardship, availability of services, community involvement of parents, their interaction with neighbors, child behavior and discipline, and means of emotional support.

The questionnaire will be distributed in November and December by the Sidney-Shelby County YMCA and will also be available online.

The Shelby County research continues a collaboration between Maguire Jack and Freisthler, who earlier this year published a paper titled “Understanding the Interplay Between Neighborhood Structural Factors, Social Processes, and Alcohol Outlets on Child Physical Abuse.”

Freisthler, a professor at the Luskin School of Public Affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles, will join the OSU College of Social Work faculty in 2016.

For more information, contact Dr. Katie Maguire Jack at