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Including Victims of Domestic Abuse in a Study

Studying adults that are victims of abuse can provide valuable information about how to help individuals in these traumatic situations. Unlike abused children or abused adults with diminished capacity to consent, abused adults don’t require surrogate consent as the abused adult should be capable of consenting for themselves. However, it is important that you carefully study the participants’ situations and devise a procedure wherein the participant can participate safely and confidentially.

Confidentiality Issues
Understanding the abused adult’s situation will help you to anticipate how to protect his or her confidentiality. For some abused adults, their abuser may still be in their lives and if the abuser found out about the victim participating in a study about abuse, it may incite further harm to the victim. Navigating abuse is a serious challenge for the victim and it may not be something that he or she is willing or able to share with their friends, coworkers, other family members, etc. It is important that you consider how to approach the victim 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. Even providing the participant with a pamphlet about the study may not be wise if it could link the participant to the abuse study.

There may be instances in which confidentiality has to be compromised. If you learn of new instances of abuse, you may consider reporting the abuse. If you will ask the adult 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.

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 text (please modify so that it is appropriate for the participants’ reading level): I have ethical obligations to report suspected abuse and to prevent you or others from carrying out threats or doing serious harm.  If keeping information obtained in this study private would immediately put your and/or another person in danger, I will release that information.

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