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Violence and Victims, Volume 19, Number 6, December 2004

Adulthood Depression, Anxiety,


and Trauma Symptoms:
A Comparison of Women With
Nonabusive, Abusive, and Absent
Father Figures in Childhood
William R. Downs
Barb Rindels
University of Northern Iowa
Cedar Falls, IA
We collected data from 447 women (aged 18 or higher) from seven domestic violence programs and five substance use disorder treatment programs in a midwestern state. Women
who reported a nonabusive natural/adoptive father or stepfather (N = 185), abusive natural/
adoptive father or stepfather (N = 200), or absent father figure (N = 40) were compared on
a series of mental health measures with multivariate analysis of variance and pairwise post
hoc comparisons using the Bonferroni test. Women with absent father figures were found
to have significantly lower mean scores on the Beck Anxiety Inventory, Beck Depression
Inventory, and Trauma Symptom Checklist-40 (TSC-40) than women with abusive fathers.
There were no significant differences between women with absent father figures and
women with nonabusive father figures on the Beck Anxiety Inventory, Beck Depression
Inventory, and TSC-40. Implications for research, practice, and policy are discussed.

esearch on father presence, father absence, and single mother families has produced conflicting results regarding effects on children. Some studies have found no
differences between father presence and father absence on child outcome variables
(Black, Dubowitz & Starr, 1999; Crockett, Eggebeen & Hawkins, 1993; Mott, 1993). Marshall, English, and Stewart (2001) found no direct effect of father or father figure presence
when controlling for variables such as mothers ethnicity, childs gender, and presence of
domestic violence. Furthermore, children living with stepfathers were found not significantly different from children in single parent families regarding behavioral and emotional
outcomes (Hetherington & Henderson, 1997). However, Dubowitz and colleagues (2001)
did find that children with a father figure had higher levels of cognitive performance and
social acceptance than children without a father figure, and speculated that their sample
of families at higher risk than that of most previous research may be one reason for this
different finding.
Studies of single mother families have yielded somewhat different results. In a sample
of 111 children living with unmarried mothers, Coley (1998) found that girls and African
American children with more positive and warm interactions with nonresidential fathers
2004 Springer Publishing Company

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had higher scores on standardized achievement tests. Lipman, Boyle, Dooley, and Offord
(2002) found that compared with children from two parent families, children from single
mother families had significantly higher levels of psychiatric problems and social impairment. However, the effect of single mother status on social impairment disappeared when
controlling for additional factors such as maternal depression and sociodemographic variables. While still significant, the effect of single mother status on psychiatric problems
decreased considerably when controlling for these additional factors, an exception being
that hostile parenting had a significantly greater negative effect on child psychiatric problems in single mother families than in two parent families (Lipman et al.). These studies
indicate that multivariate examination of interaction effects among variables is important
to unravel effects of single mother status on children. Other research has found that positive father involvement is significantly related to improved developmental outcomes for
children (Black et al., 1999; Biller & Kempton, 1997).
While results have been mixed on the effects of father presence as compared with father
absence, the bulk of the research indicates that the presence of a positive father figure can
be significantly related to improved child outcomes. Conversely, the presence of an abusive father can have negative effects on child outcomes (Downs & Miller, 1998a; Herman,
Russell, & Trocki, 1986; Miller, Downs, & Testa, 1993). However, other than research on
the negative effects of father-daughter or stepfather-stepdaughter incest (e.g., Gelinas,
1983; Phelan, 1995; Russell, 1984), most studies on experiences of childhood physical
parental abuse have combined mother and father abuse into a single variable, parental
abuse (Downs & Miller, 1998a, 1998b). Studies that have examined the long-term effects
of parental physical abuse generally have found that experiences of parental physical abuse
during childhood are significantly related to mental health problems for women in adulthood (Banyard, 1999; Banyard, Williams, & Siegel, 2001; Bifulco, Moran, Baines, Bunn,
& Stanford, 2002).
Some researchers have examined specifically the effects of father as compared with
mother abuse. Controlling for demographic variables and parental alcohol problems,
Miller and colleagues (1993) found father-to-daughter but not mother-to-daughter verbal
and physical abuse to be significantly related to alcohol problems for women. Controlling
for demographic variables, parental alcohol problems, and help-seeking behavior, experiences of father-to-daughter abuse but not mother-to-daughter abuse were found to be significantly related to increased levels of psychiatric symptoms (Downs & Miller, 1998a)
and lower levels of self-esteem (Downs & Miller, 1998b) for women. Conversely, Downs,
Capshew and Rindels (2004) found higher levels of both mother and father physical abuse
to be related to lifetime diagnosis of alcohol dependence, but only in the absence of sexual abuse. Other studies have examined specifically the long-term negative effects of
father-daughter or stepfather-stepdaughter sexual abuse (e.g., Phelan, 1995; Russell,
1984). These lines of research lead to the possibility that abusive fathers in particular can
have long-term negative effects that last into adulthood for women. This possibility raises
the question of whether absence of a father figure during childhood has better overall consequences for women than presence of an abusive father figure during childhood.
The purpose of this article is to compare the long-term effects of nonabusive, abusive,
and absent father figures for adulthood mental health outcomes for women, controlling for
important covariates such as presence of mother-to-daughter physical abuse and recent
partner abuse. This article is one of several from a larger study that was designed to examine the association between womens experiences of domestic violence and substance abuse
problems. Accordingly, we obtained two samples of women (N = 447), one in treatment

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661

for alcohol or drug problems from five substance use disorder treatment programs in a
midwestern state (N = 225), and one receiving services for domestic violence from seven
domestic violence programs in the same state (N = 222). For this article, we used three
standardized measures of mental health, the Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI; Beck & Steer,
1993a), Beck Depression Inventory (BDI; Beck & Steer, 1993b), and Trauma Symptom
Checklist (TSC-40; Briere, 1996). We also used the Parent-Child Conflict Tactics Scales
and Sexual Maltreatment Subscale to assess retrospectively womens experiences of physical and sexual abuse (Straus, Hamby, Finkelhor, Moore, & Runyan, 1998). Finally, we
also used the Abusive Behavior Inventory to assess recent experiences of partner abuse
(Shepard & Campbell, 1992).

METHODOLOGY
Recruitment of Respondents
The Universitys Institutional Review Board approved the procedures of this study. Women
were recruited for interviews primarily in group meetings. At the end of these group meetings, staff and male clients left (to protect womens confidentiality). One of the interviewers briefly described the study to the women (e.g., types of questions, overview of the
study, anticipated length of interview), reported the informed consent procedures (e.g.,
confidentiality, who would and would not have access to information they would be asked
to provide), informed the women that volunteering for the study did not mean they had to
answer all of the questions, informed the women that those who volunteered to be interviewed would be paid $20, answered the womens questions, and asked women interested
in being interviewed to sign up on a schedule sheet.
In the case of the domestic violence agencies, women were recruited primarily from
support groups. Meeting women in the groups had the advantage of efficiency; however,
women who were in the shelter only a few days missed the opportunity to be asked to volunteer for the study. The effect on recruitment was that women who stayed in the shelter
longer had a greater chance of being in the sample. Women who were in a short-term crisis may have left the shelter after a few days time and missed the opportunity to be in the
study. Thus, an additional method of recruitment was used. Flyers describing the study
were posted in prominent places in the shelter with a toll-free number to call to have an
interview scheduled. We eventually had flyers placed in five of the seven domestic violence programs.

Informed Consent Procedures


Before the interview, interviewers reviewed the informed consent procedures with the
potential respondents. Women were told that if they did choose not to answer any questions,
or did terminate the interview, they would still receive the $20. After the potential respondent had an opportunity to process this information and ask questions, she was again asked
if she wanted to be interviewed. If she agreed, she was asked to sign the informed consent
form. The interview could not proceed unless women signed the informed consent form.
Also before the interview, women were paid the $20 and signed receipts for this money.
After the interview, the interviewer transported all materials directly back to the research
office, where they were placed in locked file cabinets. The name-to-identification number
sheet, hard copies of the interviews, and tapes were all kept in separate locked file cabinets.

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Demographics
Most of the women in the study (77.4%) had been married at least once previously. A
total of 12.1% of the women were currently married, and 6.2% were currently cohabiting; most of the women in the study were currently separated (20.6%), divorced (25.6%),
or single (33.9%). Most of the respondents were White (77.6%), reflecting the population
of the midwestern state in which the study was conducted. However, 16.8% were African
American, and 5.5% were classified as other (Mexican American, Native American,
Asian American, Latina, or mixed). The median age of the sample was 33.54.

Measures of Variables
Mental Health Problems. To assess womens mental health problems, the BAI (Beck
& Steer, 1993a), BDI (Beck & Steer, 1993b), and TSC-40 (Briere, 1996) were used. The
Beck Inventories have 21 items each, and the TSC-40 has 40 items and 6 subscales, assessing anxiety, depression, dissociation, sexual abuse trauma, sexual problems, and sleep disturbance. As expected, coefficients alpha for these scales for the sample in this study were
very high: BAI (.94), BDI (.90), and TSC-40 (.94). Higher scores on each of these scales
indicate higher levels of mental health problems.
Parent-Child Conflict Tactics Scales (CTSPC). The Parent-Child Conflict Tactics
Scales (CTSPC) were used to assess experiences of parental physical abuse during childhood (Straus et al., 1998). In this study, women were asked retrospectively for their
childhood (between the ages of 7 and 18) the question how many times that your father
(or separately mother) did these things during a typical year of your childhood for each
item. Interviewers made clear to respondents that in this case father (or mother) meant
the father (or mother) figure that they had named earlier in the interview. The CTSPC has
five subscales: nonviolent discipline, psychological aggression, minor physical assault
(corporal punishment), severe physical assault (physical abuse), and very severe physical
assault (severe physical abuse). For this study, we used the severe physical assault and very
severe physical assault scales as measures of father-to-daughter physical abuse.
Women were placed in the following categories: natural/adoptive father physical abuse
or stepfather physical abuse, respectively, based on whom they had named as their father
figure and if there were at least one occurrence of any item on the Severe Physical Assault
or Very Severe Physical Assault scale during a typical year of the womans childhood.
The internal consistency reliability (Kuder-Richardson Formula 20) for these two scales
combined was .84. Each item on the mother-to-daughter CTSPC Severe Physical Assault
and Very Severe Physical Assault scales was dichotomized with a score of 1 if there was
at least one occurrence of the item or 0 if there were no occurrences of the item during a
typical year of the womans childhood. Women were placed in the following categories:
presence of mother-to-daughter abuse (if they responded Yes to any item on either scale)
or absence of mother-to-daughter abuse (if they responded No to all the items on both
scales). The internal consistency reliability (Kuder-Richardson Formula 20) for these two
scales combined was .78.
The sexual maltreatment subscale was used to assess retrospectively womens experiences of sexual abuse (Straus et al., 1998). The sexual maltreatment subscale consists of
four questions, two about the respondents own experiences in childhood and two about
the experiences of the respondents own child. We asked the two about the respondents
own experiences during her childhood. There are three categories of sexual abuse experiences to which the women respondents could have responded Yes it happened: being

Influence of Fathers on Womens Mental Health in Adulthood

663

personally touched in an unwanted sexual way by an adult or older child, being forced to
touch an adult or older child in a sexual way, and being forced to have sex by an adult or
older child (see Straus et al., 1998, for the specific questions asked). Women were asked
to identify up to three perpetrators of the sexual abuse. Women were placed in the following categories: having experienced sexual abuse by natural/adoptive father or stepfather, respectively, based on whether they identified natural/adoptive father or stepfather as
a perpetrator.
Experiences of Partner Abuse. The Abusive Behavior Inventory (ABI)-Physical and
Abusive Behavior Inventory-Psychological (Shepard & Campbell, 1992) were used to
assess womens experiences of partner abuse. The ABI is a 30 item instrument that uses
a 5-point Likert-type scale to measure the frequency of abusive behaviors during a
6-month period (Shepard & Campbell, p. 292). The ABI has 10 items that tap physical
assault and 20 items to assess psychological abuse. The ABI does not place violence in the
context of resolving conflict, a difference from the Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS).
Coefficient alphas for the ABI-Physical (.93) and ABI-Psychological (.95) for the combined sample were very high. Higher scores indicated higher levels of partner abuse.

RESULTS
Categorization of Father Figures
Women were asked to list the adults who raised them up to age 18, and then to identify a
primary father and a primary mother figure, defined as who took care of them the longest,
or with whom they lived the longest, from ages 7 to 18. These ages were selected to minimize recall bias and match the ages for the CTSPC. The childhood lives of these women
were complex, often with different adults assuming the role of parent due to, for example,
parental separation (N = 214, 48.4%), parental divorce (N = 169, 38.9%), mothers
boyfriend moving in (N = 101, 23.2%), fathers girlfriend moving in (N = 34, 7.9%), or
other multiple changes in the childhood family (e.g., death of mother or father, being
placed in a foster home). In most cases, women could identify a primary father figure (see
Table 1 for specific categories). However, 10.5% of the women (N = 47) reported not having a primary father figure from ages 7 to 18 of their childhood. None of the women
reported having no primary mother figure from ages 7 to 18 of their childhood.
Seven women who reported no primary father figure also reported that their natural
father (N = 5) or stepfather (N = 2) sexually abused them (see Table 1). Of these five
women, four reported their natural father left via separation or divorce prior to age 7. One
of these four women also reported that the sexual abuse occurred during scheduled visitation. The fifth woman reported that, due to infrequent contact after age 7, she did not consider her natural father to be a father figure. Of the two women who reported stepfather
sexual abuse, neither considered him to be a father figure. One reported I raised myself
and that she also went to a detention home. The other woman reported primarily being
raised by two adult female relatives other than mother and also reported infrequent contact
with stepfather.
Categorization of father figure was based first on the womans perception of who was
her primary father figure, or whether she considered any of the adult males in her life
to be primary father figures between the ages of 7 to 18. However, there is prior work on
the strong negative effects of father-to-daughter and stepfather-to-stepdaughter incest

157

28

Abusive Stepfather

43

18

Excluded from further analysis


Father Figure Other Than Natural/Adoptive or
Stepfather and No Natural Father or
Stepfather Sex Abuse Found
18

40
No Father Figure
No Natural/Adoptive or Stepfather
Sex Abuse Found

Natural Father Stepfather Sex


Sex Abuse Found Abuse Found Neither

Natural Father Stepfather Sex


Sex Abuse Found Abuse Found Neither
3

No Father Figure
47

Othera
24

152 (144 based on CTSPC +


48 (43 CTSPC +
40
8 additional sex abuse)
5 additional sex abuse)
Nonabusive Natural/
Nonabusive Stepfather
Adoptive Father
157
28
aGrandfather (N = 14), uncle (N = 4), mothers common-law husband or boyfriend (N = 3), foster father (N = 2), other (N = 1). bMissing = 1.
cMissing = 2.

Abusive Natural/
Adoptive Father

144

TABLE 1. Breakdown of Father Figures


Adoptive/Natural
Stepfather
302
73
b
Based on CTSPC
Based on CTSPCc
Abusive Nonabusive Abusive Nonabusive

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(e.g., Gelinas, 1983). In addition, that these women recalled and divulged to us this sexual
maltreatment indicated its importance to them. For these reasons, these seven women were
recategorized from no primary father figure to abusive father figure based on this
report of sexual abuse (see Table 1). In addition, for the same reason, six women who
reported grandfather as the primary father figure but who also reported sexual abuse from
either natural father (N = 3) or stepfather (N = 3) during childhood were also recategorized
as abusive father figure (see Table 1). Eighteen women who reported an adult other than
natural/adoptive father or stepfather as their primary father figure and who also reported
no sexual abuse from natural/adoptive father or stepfather were excluded from further
analyses (see Table 1).
Thus, in this article we included 425 women in the following categories: abusive natural/adoptive father (N = 152), nonabusive natural/adoptive father (N = 157), abusive stepfather (N = 48), nonabusive stepfather (N = 28), and absent father figure (N = 40). Of the
152 women with abusive natural/adoptive father figures, 117 reported physical but not sexual abuse, 13 sexual but not physical abuse, and 22 both sexual and physical abuse. Of the
48 with an abusive stepfather as father figure, 27 reported physical but not sexual abuse, 7
sexual but not physical abuse, and 14 both sexual and physical abuse. There was insufficient
sample size to examine the effects of sexual abuse separately from those of physical abuse.

Data Analysis
The first step in the data analysis was to compare mean scores for the BAI, BDI, and TSC40 for natural/adoptive fathers and stepfathers. Mean scores for abusive natural/adoptive
fathers did not differ significantly from mean scores for abusive stepfathers on the BAI
(17.71 and 16.19, respectively, F = .47, df = 1/192, p = .49), BDI (18.31 and 17.06, respectively, F = .46, df = 1/179, p = .50), or TSC-40 (1.34 and 1.23, respectively, F = 1.31, df =
1/188, p = .25). These two categories were combined into one category, abusive father figure. Mean scores for nonabusive natural/adoptive fathers did not differ significantly from
mean scores for nonabusive stepfathers on the BAI (15.13 and 11.58, respectively, F = 2.00,
df = 1/182, p = .16), BDI (15.49 and 12.30, respectively, F = 2.26, df = 1/162, p = .14), or
TSC-40 (1.19 and 1.00, respectively, F = 2.62, df = 1/182, p = .11). These two categories
were combined into one category, nonabusive father figure.
Because the Pearson correlations among the BAI and BDI (.63), BAI and TSC-40 (.70),
and BDI and TSC-40 (.62) were very high, a multivariate analysis of variance was conducted with the BAI, BDI, and TSC-40 as the dependent variables, and father figure (coded
as 0 = nonabusive father figure, 1 = abusive father figure, and 2 = absent father figure) and
sample type (coded as 0 = substance use disorder treatment sample, and 1 = domestic violence program sample) as the independent variables. In addition, we examined the interaction effect between sample type and father figure.
There was overlap among the two samples. A total of 67% of women in the substance
abuse treatment sample had experienced partner physical violence in the past 6 months, and
26% of the women in the domestic violence program sample were diagnosed as lifetime
alcohol dependent based on the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) criteria
(World Health Organization, 1997). We examined interaction terms for sample type to
determine whether bivariate or multivariate associations differed significantly for one sample as compared to the other. None did, so we combined the two samples into one sample.
The main effect for father figure was significant (Wilks lambda = .956, F = 2.70, df =
6/714, p < .05); women with absent father figures reported the lowest levels of mental

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health problems, and women with abusive father figures reported the highest levels of mental health problems. The main effect for sample type was not significant (Wilks lambda =
.983, F = 2.09, df = 3/353, p = .11). The interaction effect between sample type and father
abuse also was not significant (Wilks lambda = .995, F = .28, df = 6/714, p = .95).
Next, a series of one-way ANCOVAs were conducted with the BAI, BDI, and TSC-40
as the dependent variables and father figure as the independent variable. Age of respondent, score on the Abusive Behavior Inventory, and mother-to-daughter physical abuse were
included as covariates. Because the ABI-Physical and ABI-Psychological scales were highly
correlated (Pearson r = .76), they were summed into one scale (which had a coefficient alpha
of .96 on the full sample for this study). We also examined the interaction term for sample
type and the independent variables and each of the covariates. None of these interaction
terms was significantly associated with scores on any of the dependent variables.
For the BAI, the main effects for father figure (F = 3.32, df = 2/376, p < .05), motherto-daughter abuse (F = 7.66, df = 1/376, p < .01), and ABI (F = 16.04, df = 1/376, p < .001)
were significant, while those for sample type (F = 1.95, df = 1/376, p = .16) and age (F =
.43, df = 1/376, p = .51) were not. For the BDI, the main effects for father figure (F = 4.04,
df = 2/342, p < .05) and ABI (F = 17.29, df = 1/342, p < .001) were significant, while those
for sample type (F = .58, df = 1/342, p = .45), mother-to-daughter abuse (F = .98, df =
1/342, p = .32), and age (F = .02, df = 1/342, p = .89) were not. For the TSC, the main
effects for father figure (F = 3.96, df = 2/379, p < .05), sample type (F = 6.05, df = 1/379,
p < .05), mother-to-daughter abuse (F = 5.07, df = 1/379, p = < .05), and ABI (F = 43.68,
df = 1/379, p < .001) were significant, while that for age (F = .69, df = 1/379, p = .12) was
not. In each case, women with absent father figures reported the lowest level of mental
health problems, and women with abusive father figures the highest. Higher scores on the
ABI, presence of mother abuse (except for the BDI), and (for the TSC-40) being in the substance abuse treatment sample were significantly related to higher levels of mental health
problems.
Finally, a series of one-way ANOVAs with pairwise post hoc comparisons using the
Bonferroni test statistic were conducted with the BAI, BDI, and TSC-40 as the dependent
variables and father figure as the independent variable. These are reported in Table 2. The

TABLE 2. One-Way ANOVAs With Post Hoc Comparisons Using the Scheffe Test
for the Beck Anxiety Inventory, Beck Depression Inventory, and Trauma Symptom
Check List40 by Father Figure
Absent
Non-Abusive
Abusive
Father
Father
Father
Figure
Figure
Figure
F
a
ab
b
Beck Anxiety
10.17
14.59
17.35
5.74**
Inventory
(9.44)
(12.29)
(13.23)
Beck Depression
12.75a
15.03a
18.01b
5.52**
Inventory
(9.91)
(9.65)
(10.59)
Trauma Symptom
.97a
1.16a
1.31b
6.95***
Check List40
(.58)
(.57)
(.55)
Note. Numbers in parentheses are standard deviations. Means with different superscripts
differ from each other at the .05 level based on the Bonferroni test.
**p < .01. ***p < .001.

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667

mean score for women with an absent father figure was significantly lower than the mean
score for women who reported an abusive father figure in each set of pairwise comparisons.
Women who reported a nonabusive father figure had significantly lower mean scores on the
BDI and TSC-40 than women who reported an abusive father, but there was not a significant difference on the BAI for women in these two groups. There were no significant differences between women with an absent father figure and women with a nonabusive father
figure on any of the dependent measures. The mean score for women with an absent father
figure for the BAI (10.17) was in the mild anxiety category (815), while that for women
who reported an abusive father figure (17.35) was in the moderate anxiety category
(1625). Also, the mean score for women with an absent father figure for the BDI (12.75)
was in the mild depression category (815), while that for women who reported an abusive father figure (18.01) was in the moderate depression category (1629).

Women With Absent Father Figures


The childhood lives of the 40 women who reported no primary father figure were complex,
often with several moves and living with different combinations of adult female relatives.
Twenty-three of these women reported that their natural fathers were separated, left the
family, or died when the woman was young. For most (N = 20) of these 23 women, father
or stepfather leaving occurred at age 5 or younger. The other 17 women did not report a
separation, but did report very infrequent or no contact with father or stepfather, or stated
that he was never there at all. Based on these data, we categorized these 40 women as having no or absent father figure. All 40 of the women with absent father figures reported
presence of a mother figure (N = 26) or multiple mother figures (N = 14).

DISCUSSION
The primary purpose of this article was to compare levels of adulthood depression, anxiety, and trauma symptoms for women who reported during childhood presence of a
nonabusive father figure, presence of an abusive father figure, and absence of a father figure, controlling for presence of mother abuse, abusive partner in adulthood, and age of
respondent. Women who reported absence of a father figure had significantly lower mean
scores on measures of anxiety, depression, and trauma than women who reported abusive
father figures during childhood. Most prior research on absent fathers has compared outcomes for children from families whose father figures were absent with children from families whose father figures were present, or children from single mother families with
children from two parent families. The current study provides preliminary data that suggests the importance of comparing outcomes for women whose families of origin did not
have father figures and whose families of origin had abusive father figures.
Most of the research in this area has examined the immediate effects of father absence
or father involvement with samples of children. In the current study, these outcomes persisted into adulthood even while controlling for recent trauma, specifically experiences
of physical and psychological abuse from partners in the past 6 months. Although there
is a considerable body of research indicating that father or stepfather abuse is significantly associated with womens adulthood alcohol problems (Downs et al., 2004; Miller
et al., 1993) or adulthood mental health problems (e.g., Downs & Miller 1998a, 1998b),
we were able to find no studies that have compared level of adulthood mental health

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problems for women with absent fathers and abusive fathers. There is a need, therefore,
to examine whether the associations reported here can be replicated with different samples of women.

Limitations
There are some limitations to the present study. First, our research was designed primarily
to examine associations between womens experiences of domestic violence and development of substance abuse problems. Our research was not designed to explore in-depth
issues for father absence during childhood for women. As a result, this study raises more
questions than it answers. Second, if in our design we missed some women in a crisis, we
may have underestimated the level of substance abuse and mental health problems. Third,
the present study is based on retrospective recall of experiences of father abuse and father
absence. This method has the advantages of including cases of father abuse that did not
necessarily receive interventions for the abuse. However, retrospective recall has its own
disadvantages, such as underrecall of abusive experiences (e.g., Williams, 1994).
Alternatively, there is the possibility of overrecall in which those with more mental health
problems may be more inclined to view their childhoods as abusive. Also, it is possible that
some women categorized in the nonabusive or absent father figure groups did experience
abuse from natural/adoptive or stepfathers, although this would have a conservative effect
on the findings of the study.
Fourth, all of the women in the present study were in treatment for substance use disorders or receiving services for experiences of domestic violence. The results of the present study cannot be generalized to women who never received services in adulthood
(Downs & Miller, 1998a, 1998b). Future research will need to examine these issues with
different samples of women and using different methods, such as prospective research. In
addition, future research will need to address reasons why or in what ways father absence
has better outcomes than father abuse for women. One possible reason is that positive
mother-daughter relationships might mitigate negative effects of having an absent father
figure. Also, compared to having an abusive father, having an absent father might simply
be better for women.

Implications for Further Research


One potential explanation for the results of this study is that the harmful effects of an abusive father figure on the development of girls may be more negative than the effects of an
absent father figure. There is a large body of data regarding the harmful effects of fatherdaughter incest (e.g., Gelinas, 1983; Herman, 1981; Russell, 1984). Virtually all studies on
the long-term effects of parental emotional or physical abuse have combined motherto-daughter and father-to-daughter abuse into experiences of parent-to-daughter abuse.
Examining separately the effects of mother-to-daughter and father-to-daughter abuse may
be important since fathers typically are larger and stronger than mothers, and may perpetrate more severe abuse (Downs & Miller, 1998a; Miller et al., 1993). Nicholas and Bieber
(1994) found that women respondents rated emotionally, physically, and sexually abusive
behaviors by fathers as more severe than did men respondents. Other research has found
that father-to-daughter abuse was significantly associated with elevated mental health
problems or presence of substance abuse problems for women (Downs & Miller, 1998a,
1998b; Miller et al.). If father-to-daughter abuse is especially severe for girls, then its longterm effects may be more harmful than father absence for women.

Influence of Fathers on Womens Mental Health in Adulthood

669

This explanation does not account for the unexpected results that mean scores on the
mental health variables for women who reported absent father figures were consistently
lower than mean scores for women who reported nonabusive father figures, though not significantly so. One possible explanation for this set of results is that, for many women with
nonabusive father figures, there was in fact abuse that was not reported during the research
interview. Williams (1994) found that a large percentage of women do not recall or do not
divulge experiences of father-daughter rape.
A second possible explanation is that this set of results is similar to prior research showing no differences between father presence and father absence on child outcome variables
(e.g., Black et al., 1999; Crockett et al., 1993; Mott, 1993). Instead of father presence/
absence, the variable of importance may be level of positive father involvement (e.g.,
Biller & Kempton, 1997; Black et al.). In addition, the high quality of the relationship
between nonresident fathers and children is related to positive outcomes for children
(Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1997). It may be that for this sample of women, fathers
reported as nonabusive did not have relationships with the women of sufficient quality to
contribute to positive outcomes in adulthood for the women. Since the results are based in
part on women in treatment for substance use disorders, it is possible that relationships
in the family of origin were by and large devoid of the quality expected for father-daughter relationships among the general population.
Instead of deficits in the father-daughter relationship, a third possible explanation for
these findings is that presence of a high quality mother-daughter relationship, or high quality relationships with multiple adult female caregivers, was sufficient for the psychological development of women with absent father figures. While some of the women with
absent father figures reported resentment towards mother figures, in part because mothers
boyfriends were abusive to mother or the respondent, other women with absent father figures reported the experience made her stronger. We speculate that a strong support network
of adult female caregivers may have mitigated the effects of an absent father. For women
who did experience sexual abuse in childhood, a strong positive response to the abuse,
often by an adult female caregiver, mitigated its effects (Downs, 1993).
Women with absent father figures in this study consistently reported the presence of a
mother or several adult female caregivers. This study was not designed to examine these
issues in detail. Thus, there needs to be further research on the positive effects of strong
mother-daughter bonds or of living with several adult female caregivers for women with
absent father figures. Current research is frequently based on the implicit assumption that
single mother families are lacking in several respects compared with two parent families.
An alternative viewpoint is that, for daughters, single mother families or families that consist of multiple adult female caregivers may have certain specific strengths that result in
long-term positive outcomes for women.

Implications for Policy and Practice


One implication for policy and practice is not to assume that presence of a father figure is
positive for girls. Judicial decisions regarding custody or visitation need to take into
account the impact that abusive fathers can have on daughters. Indeed, one of the women
in the current study reported sexual abuse occurred during scheduled visitation with her
father. Based on the data from the current study, there is a real possibility that presence of
an abusive father figure can have long-term harmful consequences on the lives of daughters,
compared to the father figure not being present. Judges need to take into consideration

670

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cases in which joint or father custody is contraindicated by the presence of father-todaughter or father figure to mother figure abuse, as well as cases in which visitation with
nonresident fathers is contraindicated for the same reasons.

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Acknowledgment. This research was supported under award number 96-WT-NX-0005 from the
National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, United States Department of Justice. Points
of view expressed in this manuscript are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the
official position of the United States Department of Justice.
The authors thank the agencies who allowed us access to their clients and, especially, the women
who shared their stories with us. The authors also express their appreciation for the helpful suggestions of two anonymous reviewers.
Offprints. Requests for offprints should be directed to William R. Downs, PhD, University of
Northern Iowa, 30 Sabin Hall, Cedar Falls, IA 50614-0405. E-mail: william.downs@uni.edu

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