Participant Responses to Retrospective Surveys of Child Maltreatment: Does Mode of Assessment Matter?

By DiLillo, David; DeGue, Sarah et al. | Violence and Victims, August 2006 | Go to article overview

Participant Responses to Retrospective Surveys of Child Maltreatment: Does Mode of Assessment Matter?


DiLillo, David, DeGue, Sarah, Kras, Amanda, Di Loreto-Colgan, Andrea R., Nash, Cindy, Violence and Victims


This study examines the impact that different methods of assessing child maltreatment history may have on adult participants. A total of 334 female undergraduate students were randomly assigned to complete a retrospective measure of child sexual and physical abuse in one of three conditions: paper-and-pencil questionnaire, face-to-face interview, or computer-administered survey. Disclosure rates of abuse, psychological distress and mood change, preferences for assessment format, and perceptions of confidentiality were examined across the three assessment formats. Although disclosure did not vary by condition, participants with a history of abuse reported more distress and mood change than did nonvictims, particularly in the computer condition. Nevertheless, the computer condition was rated as the most preferred format and was viewed by participants as the most confidential means of assessing maltreatment history. Participants reporting abuse through interviews were more likely than those in other conditions to state a preference for another type of assessment format. The implications of these findings for abuse history research are discussed.

Keywords: child maltreatment; computer assessment; mode of administration

Since the 1970s, research on the nature and long-term correlates of child maltreatment has relied heavily on the use of retrospective measures to identify individuals with a history of victimization. In general, this approach involves asking adults to indicate whether, and to what degree, they experienced various forms of maltreatment during childhood. Traditionally, the most common methods of eliciting this information have been interviews (either face-to-face or, less commonly, telephone) and paper-and-pencil surveys. These measures contain a variety of sensitive questions about abusive acts participants may have endured as children. In the case of sexual abuse, for example, a participant might be asked to respond to questions such as, "When you were a child, were you ever forced to have sexual intercourse against your will?" In the case of physical abuse, participants may encounter questions such as, "My parent beat me by slapping, hitting and/or punching me repeatedly" (True/False). In both cases, an affirmative response may be followed by more detailed queries about the perpetrator's identity as well as the specific nature, frequency, and duration of the acts that occurred. In light of the traumatic nature of child maltreatment, as well as the detailed and graphic content of these self-report measures, it is important to consider the impact that participation in such surveys may have upon individuals with a history of abuse. Some have wondered, for example, whether those with a history of maltreatment may become seriously distressed or "revictimized" as a result of participating in surveys about abuse (Walker, Newman, Koss, & Bernstein, 1997). Institutional review boards, in particular, are often concerned with the potential effects of these surveys on the emotional well-being of participants (Walker et al., 1997). Thus, a thorough understanding of the impact of surveys on participants is important to the sensitive planning and execution of abuse history research.

IMPACT OF RETROSPECTIVE SURVEYS OF ABUSE ON PARTICIPANTS

Despite innumerable studies relying on retrospective reports of abuse, relatively few investigations have explored the emotional impact these surveys may have on participants. In an initial study, Walker et al. (1997) found that many women reported positive reactions to completing a detailed abuse history assessment, but that a small proportion (13%) perceived the experience to be more upsetting than they had expected. Although women with a history of abuse were more likely to report such reactions, only 4 of 327 total participants regretted taking part in the study. In a follow-up investigation that used a similar questionnaire, as well as subsequent interviews with those identified as abuse survivors, Newman, Walker, and Gefland (1999) once more found that, while many women felt they had benefited from their participation, a small number (10. …

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