A call for protection

14th October 2005 at 01:00
May I thank Lesley McAra and Susan McVie of the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime for their courteous response to my article on research ethics with children. But I must take issue with it. They state:

"To date, we have never asked young people about physical, sexual or emotional abuse from adults."

A number of questions have raised this possibility. For instance: "Has anyone really hurt you by deliberately hitting, punching or kicking youby deliberately hitting you with a weapon?" Possible responses included "an adult I know", "more than 10 times", "with a knifebottleglass". To the question "how old were you when you had your first sexual experience?", the possible answers "eight or under" or "nine or ten" surely suggest sexual abuse.

My main point, however, was that it is not just direct questions about abuse which are child protection issues, which should have raised deep concern about individual pupils, triggering discreet offers of help and support. The Edinburgh study has not intervened with pupils even if, for instance, they ticked boxes repeatedly that they had no friends; felt depressed or hopeless about the future; hurt themselves on purpose; made themselves sick after eating, cut, stabbed or burnt themselves, took overdoses of tablets or tried to end their lives; were hurt with a weapon by a brother or sister; ran away from home for more than one night, possibly "lots of times"; took heroin or crack cocaine at the age of 11 or 12.

How could such non-intervention follow "the strictest ethical guidelines"? These would be distressing responses from distressed young people, highly suggestive of abuse, maltreatment or the involvement by adults in crime, and certainly suggestive of the need for individual help. I repeat and stand by my claim that "any experienced child protection worker could have detected, from certain clusters of responses, the minority who gave cause for concern and needed speedy offers of help".

If any repeated such answers over the years, their need for help would have been still more urgent.

The authors state that an expert advisory group monitors the activities of the study, including representatives from the education and social work departments, reporters' administration and police. I feel astonished and dismayed if none of those people raised these issues or agreed with the researchers discreet ways of helping these young people as an integral part of the project. I believe that even belatedly, they must re-examine the data and must do so now.

Sarah Nelson. Edinburgh

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