Ethical Considerations

Research on domestic abuse raises particular ethical concerns because of the sensitive nature of the topic. Such concern is heightened when conducting research with children and young people who can reveal child protection issues that cannot be kept confidential to the researchers. Due to the sensitive nature of the topic area, only young people aged 13 and upwards were recruited to participate in focus groups. Once consent had been attained from the recruitment site whether a school or community group informed consent was sought from all participants. Potential participants were initially informed about the research by an information sheet which was explained to them by either the researcher or the key worker who had facilitated contact with the young person. The information sheet contained the details of what taking part would entail, including what participants would be asked to talk about and specifically explaining that they would be asked to share their views on domestic abuse. Young people were advised that the focus group would be recorded but that only members of the research team would listen to that recording. They were told that typed up transcripts of the recordings would be produced but that all identifying information (names, place names etc.) would be removed and that quotes that may used in any printed material based on the research would be anonymised and that readers would not be able to connect any material to any individual participant.

The information sheet also stated that what participants said was confidential, unless they said something to suggest that they or someone else was at risk of harm, in which case the researchers may have to disclose this information to a teacher or key worker.  Importantly, the risk of other participants repeating what they have heard in the focus group to other individuals was highlighted as this was a potential limit to the extent to which confidentiality could be maintained. As a result, the researchers set two ground rules for each group:

ground rules

Despite these rules, however, the risk of young people disclosing personal experiences in a group setting still remained and, in a minority of cases, young people did disclose personal experiences such as disruption in the family home, care histories, school exclusion and offending behaviour. Finally, young people were advised that their participation was voluntary and that they could stop taking part at any time without repercussions.

In addition, parental consent was sought for participants in school-based focus groups. Once young people had indicated their willingness to be considered for a focus group, letters explaining the details of the research were sent home to the parents via the school. Because studies using the opt-in method have unacceptably low response rates, parental consent was sought through use of the ‘opt-out’ method where the requirement is on the parent to send a form back if they do not want their child to take part. The assumption is that if a parent does not send a form back, they are consenting to their child’s participation. The decision to choose the opt-out method of parental consent has been informed by research on the characteristics of parents who do not return opt-in consent forms and our assumption that the parents of children living with abuse would be over-represented among them. More generally apathy, inertia and lack of motivation are more common reasons why parents do not opt their children in than active refusal (Ellickson & Hawes, 1989).

Parental consent was not sought for community-based participants as seeking parental consent was considered inappropriate for some groups of young people in this stage of the study. It is now widely recognised that there are circumstances in which parental consent may not be in a young person’s best interest, including where to do so may compromise a young person’s safety or well-being (Ensign, 2003; Rew et al., 2000; Brooks-Gunn & Rotheram-Borus, 1994; Valentine et al., 2001). Additionally, the requirement of parental consent may be impractical in cases where young people have little or no contact with parents or have left home. It was anticipated that the non school-based participants may fall into a number of these categories and as a result parental consent was not sought.

The study’s approach to consent also reflects a concern that parents of young people who have witnessed or been a victim of domestic violence may not give their consent in order to protect their own interests. Thus, requiring parental consent may serve to exclude those young people who would like their viewpoints to be represented.  Furthermore, empirical evidence suggests that most adolescents are as capable as adults of making competent decisions about participating in research (Levine, 1995; Petersen & Leffert, 1995). Nonetheless, consent was sought in loco parentis from key staff members in organisations where the community-based focus groups took place (e.g. youth justice worker, probation staff, substance use counsellor).

Given the nature of the research topic, there was the potential that the discussion may raise concern among some participants or cause upset. This risk of harm was minimised by conducting the focus groups in organisations which young people were used to accessing and where they knew the staff members. These staff members were aware when the research was taking place and were on hand immediately after the focus group if participants needed to seek support. In addition, young people were provided with details of a local domestic abuse service if they wished to seek further advice.