Association of Childhood Abuse with Homeless Women's Social Networks

Published In: Child Abuse & Neglect, v. 36, no. 1, Jan. 2012, p. 21-31

Posted on on January 01, 2012

by Harold D. Green, Joan S. Tucker, Suzanne L. Wenzel, Daniela Golinelli, David P. Kennedy, Gery W. Ryan, Annie Jie Zhou

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OBJECTIVE: Childhood abuse has been linked to negative sequelae for women later in life including drug and alcohol use and violence as victim or perpetrator and may also affect the development of women's social networks. Childhood abuse is prevalent among at-risk populations of women (such as the homeless) and thus may have a stronger impact on their social networks. We conducted a study to: (a) develop a typology of sheltered homeless women's social networks; (b) determine whether childhood abuse was associated with the social networks of sheltered homeless women; and (c) determine whether those associations remained after accounting for past-year substance abuse and recent intimate partner abuse. METHODS: A probability sample of 428 homeless women from temporary shelter settings in Los Angeles County completed a personal network survey that provided respondent information as well as information about their network members' demographics and level of interaction with each other. Cluster analyses identified groups of women who shared specific social network characteristics. Multinomial logistic regressions revealed variables associated with group membership. RESULTS: We identified three groups of women with differing social network characteristics: low-risk networks, densely connected risky networks (dense, risky), and sparsely connected risky networks (sparse, risky). Multinomial logistic regressions indicated that membership in the sparse, risky network group, when compared to the low-risk group, was associated with history of childhood physical abuse (but not sexual or emotional abuse). Recent drug abuse was associated with membership in both risky network groups; however, the association of childhood physical abuse with sparse, risky network group membership remained. CONCLUSIONS: Although these findings support theories proposing that the experience of childhood abuse can shape women's social networks, they suggest that it may be childhood physical abuse that has the most impact among homeless women. PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS: The effects of childhood physical abuse should be more actively investigated in clinical settings, especially those frequented by homeless women, particularly with respect to the formation of social networks in social contexts that may expose these women to greater risks.

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