Ethics and research into violence against children

Ethics and research into violence against children

24 January 2013

The consequences and magnitude of violence against children cannot be fully understood without quality research. Yet research on violence is sensitive - and particularly so when it involves child participation.

The United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child stipulates that children have the right to express their views and have the freedom to seek and receive information, as dictated by their age and maturity.

But these rights may be in conflict with parental rights to privacy, as well as a societal expectation that parents speak for and on behalf of their children.

A newly released report on the ethics of collecting data on violence against children, conducted for the Technical Working Group on Data Collection on Violence Against Children, seeks to provide a summary of research and existing guidelines to inform research into violence against children.

The report notes a lack of ethical guidance on research with children, and acknowledges that existing ethical guidance relies on researchers interpreting vague concepts.

For instance, a requirement to obtain parental consent for participation in research into violence against children may not be in the child’s best interest if the parent is perpetrating that violence. However, if the perpetrator is another adult then the parent may be an important source of support for the child.

The authors of the report stress that researchers require training to understand how to apply the concepts of quality research, autonomy, justice, beneficence, and respect specific to their research and the needs of the child they are currently working with.

However, they state that there has been limited research on the impact of participation in studies on violence on child participants, particularly on the nature of emotional impact and its duration and magnitude of distress caused.

Another critical concern related to violence against children is the balance between confidentiality and child protection issues, particularly reporting of suspected maltreatment. There is an underlying conflict between the conduct of research and a duty to report that abuse to a child protection authority. The authors suggest that reporting of abuse should be mitigated by the principle of beneficence and that any benefit of reporting must outweigh the breach of confidence.

The report also recommend that all Human Ethics Review Boards should have a standard requirement for reporting disclosures to ensure consistency across research projects.

In Australia, Section 4 of the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research2 discusses ethical consideration specific to children and young people.

The National Statement offers suggestions on what to consider when designing and implementing research, but does not provide definitive answers – placing the onus on researchers to ensure their research encompasses the critical elements of research merit, justice, beneficence and respect.


Child Protection Monitoring and Evaluation Reference Group (2012). Ethical principles, dilemmas and risks in collecting data on violence against children: A review of available literature. New York : Statistics and Monitoring Section/Division of Policy and Strategy, UNICEF. Available at:

Further resources

DoCS research ethics guidance: For conducting research involving services, clients or information about clients of the NSW Department of Community Services (PDF) retrieved from  

While this resource is specific to research with DoCS, the overview and guidance can be applied more broadly and may be useful for consideration in designing and conducting research on violence against children.

Consent in Research, from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, is another resource that is useful for understanding concepts of consent when conducting research with children.

2. Produced by the National Health and Medical Research Council and available at:

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Debbie is a Research Fellow with the CFCA information exchange at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

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