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News Release

For immediate use

July 14, 2006 -- No. 339

Local angle: Irvine, Calif.

Study: Children with disabilities
more likely to live with women

CHAPEL HILL - Children with disabilities are more likely than other youngsters to live with single mothers or other female caretakers, says a new study by a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The study by Dr. Philip Cohen, associate professor of sociology in UNC's College of Arts and Sciences, will be published in the Friday (July 14) issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family. Miruna Petrescu-Prahova, a doctoral student at the University of California, Irvine, and a former student of Cohen's, assisted in the research.

The two analyzed 2000 U.S. Census figures, which listed data for about 2.3 million children aged 5 to 15. Among them, more than 130,000 were reported to have mental and/or physical disabilities.

The researchers found that fewer than half (45.8 percent) of the children with disabilities live with a married biological parent, compared to 62.3 percent of children without disabilities.

About one in four children with disabilities (24.5 percent) are cared for by single mothers, compared to 17.4 percent of children without disabilities. In addition, children with disabilities are more than five times as likely to live with single mothers as with single fathers.

About 13.5 percent of children with disabilities are raised by other caretakers (grandparents, other relatives, foster parents or adoptive parents), compared with 7 percent of other children. The study shows that these caretakers are significantly more likely to be women than men.

"The implications are that we have to pay attention to the needs and demands of these families of children with disabilities, which are more likely to be female-headed households," said Cohen, also a fellow at the Carolina Population Center at UNC. "The work-family balance issues that so many people are burdened with are especially challenging for families who have children with disabilities."

Women shoulder a disproportionate share of the unpaid care for these children, he said.

"Mothers who care for children with disabilities often perceive a lack of institutional, community and family support for this work, which is compounded by poverty and inadequate welfare programs," Cohen said.

The study also shows that children with disabilities are more likely to be boys, with the gender difference most pronounced for mental disabilities, and they are more likely to be black or American Indian.

Previous research shows that children's disabilities reduce the chances that mothers will marry and increase the chances that a marriage will break up, both of which usually lead to children living with their mothers, Cohen said.

"Now we have reason to believe that even when these children don't live with either biological parent, disabilities affect decisions about where they will live," Cohen said. "When children require more care, it is women who most often end up with the caretaking role."

Cohen, who came to UNC in 2005, researches work and family issues, including the division of housework and women's employment. He also examines inequality, segregation and discrimination by race and gender in the workplace. In a future study, Cohen will focus on single mothers with disabilities, "who are in the strongest grip of the work-family vice."

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Note: A copy of the journal article is available on Cohen's Web site at http://www.unc.edu/~pnc/pubs.html; he can be reached at (919) 966-6537, (919) 843-4791 or pnc@unc.edu

College of Arts and Sciences contact: Kim Weaver Spurr, (919) 962-4093, spurrk@email.unc.edu