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Including Abused Children in a Study

Understanding and researching child abuse is an important step towards stopping it. However, children who are abused are one of the most risk-sensitive and vulnerable populations who might be included in a study. Issues such as consent become more complex (do you seek consent from the parent who might be the potential abuser?) and talking to the child about his or her family life may be upsetting. If the child is still in the home, the child may be in a harmful and possibly life threatening situation and you will be legally obligated to report any child abuse, which will also compromise confidentiality. When you construct your study, it is important to think through every detail and to carefully weigh the impact you will have on the child’s life. As always, if you have specific questions about your study, please contact our office so that we can provide further guidance.

Consent process
For any study involving a minor, you are required to seek consent from the minor’s legally authorized representative (LAR). For a child in an abusive situation, it is important to determine who the LAR is. For example, if the child is in foster care, is the foster parent an LAR or is the child a ward of the state? Is it appropriate to seek the parent’s consent if the parent is the abuser? In such cases, the Board may consider granting a waiver of consent if the conditions are warrented. The Board will need to have a clear understanding of all the players involved in the child’s life and you will need to have a procedure in place that truly obtains the LAR’s consent and the minor’s assent without causing additional harm to the child. As you develop your consent documents, make sure that they provide the participant with accurate and useful information that will help them understand the scope and nature of their participation. For more information about obtaining consent from a parent and assent from a child, please see Minors: Consent.  

Confidentiality Issues
Understanding the minor’s situation will help you to anticipate how to protect the minor’s confidentiality. For some minors, their abuser may still be in their lives and if the abuser found out about the minor participating in a study about abuse, it may incite further harm to the child. Even providing the participant with a pamphlet about the study may not be wise if it could be linked to the participant. Navigating abuse is a serious challenge for the minor and it may not be something the minor is willing or able to share with their peers, teachers, other family members, etc. It is important that you consider how to approach the minor (which can only occur after the LAR gives permission) about the study, where the study will take place, and how the data are collected and stored so that privacy and confidentiality will be protected.

There may be instances in which confidentiality has to be compromised. If you learn of new instances of abuse, you are legally obligated to report the abuse. If you will ask the minor questions about illegal behaviors, such as drug use, etc, you may need to obtain a certificate of confidentiality. If it is likely that they will tell you this information and it isn’t in the scope of your study, you need to have a procedure so that this information is not documented; for example, if you are conducting an interview, start the interview by instructing the participant not to include information about illegal behaviors in the interview. If it comes up anyway, you could stop the interview, remind the participant not to provide the information about illegal behaviors, and erase that part of the interview.

As mentioned in the previous section, you will need to obtain consent from a legally authorized representative and assent from the minor. Templates for these documents and information about this process can be found in the Parent Consent/ Minor Assent section. If the potential exists that you may have to compromise confidentiality, you should provide this information in the consent form in the “Confidentiality” section; provide the participants with specifics about what would prompt you to break confidentiality and what information will be shared. For example, see the sample text below:

Consent form (please modify so that it is appropriate for the participants’ reading level): I have ethical and legal obligations to report suspected child abuse or neglect and to prevent your child from carrying out any threats to do serious harm to themselves or others. If keeping information obtained in this study private would immediately put them or someone else in danger, I will release that information to the proper authority to protect them or another person.

Assent form (please modify so that it is appropriate for the participants’ reading level): If I think that someone is doing bad things to you, or if I think you are doing bad things to yourself or to other people, I will need to tell someone about it so that I can help you.

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