UR Study Examines Child Abuse Reporting

November 13, 2000

Public misperceptions about child abuse and the reluctance of many people to get involved in others' private lives often prevent serious cases of abuse from being reported to authorities, according to a study conducted by University of Rochester Medical Center researchers.

The information will be presented today, at the American Public Health Association's annual conference in Boston. The URMC study was commissioned by Monroe County and the United Way of Greater Rochester as the first phase in their joint Child Abuse Prevention Integrated Communications project.

The study was undertaken to measure attitudes surrounding suspected child abuse and determine how reporting can be improved. The research provides Monroe County and the United Way with a foundation for a community marketing and educational campaign to promote a greater awareness and understanding of the issue.

Public agencies that are required to receive and investigate reports of child abuse and neglect face a dilemma: often, reports are made in situations where abuse and neglect are not actually occurring, yet other cases of serious abuse and neglect go unreported. Indeed, the study found that many factors complicate a person's decision to report suspected maltreatment, such as perceptions of meddling in others' affairs, fear of the consequences of reporting on the child and the reporter, and lack of understanding of the reporting process and requirements. Even professionals mandated by law to report suspected maltreatment were unclear about reporting.

"Professionals in health care and education, as well as the general public, really struggle with what to do when they suspect abuse or neglect,'' said Timothy D. Dye, Ph.D., Director of the URMC's Division of Public Health Practice, who will present the findings at the APHA conference. "It's an incredibly emotional issue.''

Dye and his team formed 14 focus groups with 143 local participants from various backgrounds, and used the groups to monitor opinions about child abuse. About half were professionals required to report suspected abuse - day care employees, health care workers, educators and law enforcement officials. The research was concluded earlier this year.

Key findings:

  • When presented with scenarios they considered to be abusive or neglectful, only about 50 percent of the participants said they would report the case to Child Protective Services or the police.
  • More than half of the participants believed their involvement would result in a negative consequence for the child, such as the escalation of abuse.
  • Men were particularly reluctant to get involved in situations where they suspect abuse or neglect.
  • Personal experience and culture influence one's perceptions of what constitutes maltreatment and what to do about it. More than half of the participants believe that cases of abuse and neglect are rising, due to parallel increases in family and work-related stresses.

The research had other components, as well. A summary of recommendations from the reporters' point of view will be presented to the APHA by Nancy P. Chin, Ph.D., URMC Division of Health Practice. In addition, Ann Dozier, Ph.D., URMC Division of Health Practice, will present the results of a survey on the public's perception of shaken baby syndrome.

Researchers from Monroe County were Health Director Andrew S. Doniger, M.D., Deputy Social Services Director Diane Larter, Child Protective Services Supervisor Thomas Corbett, and Senior Research Analyst Karen Reixach.

The Monroe County/United Way Child Abuse Prevention Project is currently in development. Television commercials aimed at the general public and training programs for mandated reporters are expected to begin next year.

For Media Inquiries:
Leslie Orr
(585) 275-5774
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