WHEN Jane Wilson was growing up, she didn’t just learn about wicked stepmothers from fairytales.
As a little girl, she knew what it felt like to have one because of the cruel way she was treated by her dad’s wife.
Jane, 47, an accountant from Staffordshire who did not wish to be pictured, told The Sun: “One day when I was about 11, my stepmum found me playing in the garden shed where I wasn’t supposed to be, so she locked me in.
“I screamed and cried for hours to be let out, but she kept me in there overnight.
“Another time I remember sitting down to dinner. I didn’t recognise the flavour of the meat, so I asked my stepmum what it was.
“She told me it was chicken. When I finished it, she said, ‘You’ve just eaten a bunny’. When I started crying, she laughed. My dad said nothing.”
Such incidents are typical of the abuse Jane suffered from the age of four when her dad married again after her parents’ divorce – and her mum was not always well enough to look after her.
Recently she’s been repeatedly brought to tears by harrowing footage of tragic Arthur Labinjo-Hughes hours before he died saying “no one loves me”, because it brings back painful memories of how she felt as a child.
Of course, the vast majority of step-parents are loving carers who work hard to look after their partner’s children.
But as step-families are now the fastest growing kind of family in the UK – an estimated 1.15million children are living with one – experts warn we need to be vigilant to the signs of mental or physical abuse from an incoming partner.
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Stepdads are eight times more likely to kill children in their care, compared with genetic parents, according to research published in the journal Violence and Victims (2004).
Stepmothers are THREE times more likely to do the same.
The Cinderella Effect
The phenomenon even has its own name, The Cinderella Effect, coined after the evil stepmother in the classic fairytale by Canadian psychology professor Martin Daly, who first studied the risks in the 1970s.
In Jane’s case, it didn’t take long for the cruelty to start.
“From a young age, my stepmum would tell me I was the biggest problem in my dad’s life and it would be better off for him if I were dead,” she recalled.
“My dad never seemed to notice or care, so I grew up thinking it was normal.”
While Jane is left with life-long psychological scars, unlike Arthur and 16-month-old Star Hobson, she survived.
Six-year-old Arthur was not only subjected to bullying when his dad Thomas Hughes, 29, started a relationship with Emma Tustin, 32, who forced him to stand in a corridor for up to 14 hours a day at the couple’s home in Solihull, West Midlands
For three months he was also beaten and force-fed salt.
He died after sustaining an unsurvivable head injury at the hands of evil Tustin while his dad was out shopping in June last year.
In recent weeks, a court also heard how little Star was killed with a blow to the stomach from Savannah Brockhill, 28, the lover of her mum Frankie Smith, 20, at their home in West Yorkshire last September.
Both crimes sickened the nation.
Worryingly, according to academic research, these kids won't be the only ones suffering at the hands of step-parents.
Possible reasons for The Cinderella Effect lie in basic biology.
Evolutionary psychologists believe that humans, like other animals, are programmed to want to look after children that carry their own genes, not someone else’s.
The method by which step-parents kill stepchildren varies too, according to studies.
Once they are past babyhood, genetic parents are more likely to kill their children as acts of revenge against co-parents or as part of psychotic episodes, often using techniques like smothering.
However, step-parents are more likely to beat or bludgeon step-children, which researchers say could indicate more anger and resentment.
Speaking to The Sun, Professor Daly said that, although it’s a painful subject, we need to look out for possible risks for some children when parents find new partners.
He said: “I’d like to think that improved awareness of the statistical reality that children are more at risk if there’s a step-parent in the home could contribute to better decision-making by parents and by social services.
“Step-parental affection and kindness can’t always be taken for granted.”
Kevin Hoffin, a lecturer in criminology at Birmingham City University, says when step-parents abuse children in their care, there are “many pieces to that jigsaw puzzle”.
These can include risk factors such as poverty and a history of violence in the home.
But one key red flag could be the relationship between the genetic parent and the incoming partner.
Step-parental affection and kindness can’t always be taken for granted
He warned: “If one is in thrall to the other, through romantic obsession or dependency, then the biological parent may put their relationship over the well-being of their own child.”
In both Arthur and Star's cases, their biological parents seem to have been under the control of older and more violent, dangerous partners.
Arthur’s previously "stable" life began to spiral when his dad embarked on a relationship with Tustin and moved into her home.
It sparked a tsunami of abuse, with Hughes becoming "rough" and "aggressive" towards Arthur.
Hughes, 29, was found guilty of manslaughter and caged for 21 years while Tustin was sentenced to life with a minimum of 29 years after being found guilty of murder.
Meanwhile Star’s mum, who ignored the abuse of her daughter, was jailed for eight years for causing or allowing the death. Callous Brockhill was caged for life with a minimum of 25 years.
Signs of abuse
It's a pattern Jane, who cut off contact with her dad and stepmum as soon as she was old enough, recognises.
She said: “My step-mum was controlling and my dad was weak and made the decision to prioritise his wife instead of his child.
“Even though they are now divorced, to this day my dad won’t admit it was wrong.”
Consultant clinical child psychologist Emma Citron told The Sun: “There are many loving step-parents who come in and take over the parental role in a loving, kind and altruistic way.
“However a step-parent can feel the child gets in the way, and not be sensitive to the fact that a child is likely to be dealing with lots of complicated emotions after the break-up of their parents' relationship.”
Emma also wants parents to be more alert to the early signs of abuse, as well as any indication a new partner is threatened by the child.
My step-mum was controlling and my dad was weak and made the decision to prioritise his wife instead of his child
If you do invite a new partner into your home, Emma said it’s essential children are still allowed to spend plenty of time with grandparents or members of the extended family, who may be better able to spot red flags, like signs of physical abuse or changes in behaviour.
Now with a teenage son of her own, it has taken Jane years of on-going therapy to try to get over her treatment.
She said: “The problem is there are thousands of these kids out there being psychologically and physically abused every today.
“But it takes the deaths of little children to bring this sort of treatment to people’s attention.
“For every Arthur and Star, there are 500 kids who may not die at the hands of their step-parents but won’t ever get over the psychological damage and may end up addicted to drugs or on the streets.”
If you are a child who survives, it's not the cruel words of the step-parent that hurt the most, she adds.
“It's the betrayal – the memory of your genetic parent, who was supposed to love and protect you, doing nothing. I don't think I'll ever get over that.”
*Jane's name has been changed.
Tanith Carey is author of What’s My Child Thinking? Practical Child Psychology for Modern Parents, with Dr Angharad Rudkin.
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