Domestic Abuse: Emotional, Physical, and Sexual Abuse of Adults

Prior to reading this section, review Including a Risk-Sensitive Population for general guidelines about including risk-sensitive populations.

Studies can focus on abused adults, they can include abused adults in the study but abuse is not the topic of the study, or the researcher inadvertently learns of adult abuse during his interaction with the participant. For the first two scenarios, the Board will want to know:

  • What is your recruitment and consent process? Is there a potential that abusive partner could learn about the study, putting the participant at greater risk? 
  • Is there a potential that the subject matter could be upsetting or trigger additional abuse?
  • If you obtain information about illegal behaviors, how will you handle that information? 
  • If you learn of a situation that is threatening to a participant, how will you handle reporting the incident?

The remaining pages in this section cover how to report an abusive situation if you encounter it while conducting your study. If your study involves at-risk adults, especially if you are working intimately with them, there is always the possibility that you could discover evidence of abuse. It is important to make yourself aware of the signs of abuse, your reporting responsibilities, and where to report any suspicion. If you are working with an at-risk population, you will need to demonstrate that you are qualified and capable of working with this population.

In addition to reporting abuse to the appropriate authorities, you may need to report the incident to the IRB-SBS as an Unexpected Adverse Event. Please see Unexpected Adverse Events for more information. 

Including Victims of Domestic Abuse in a Study

Studying adults that are victims of abuse can provide valuable information about how to help individuals in these traumatic situations. Unlike abused children or abused adults with diminished capacity to consent, abused adults don’t require surrogate consent as the abused adult should be capable of consenting for themselves. However, it is important that you carefully study the participants’ situations and devise a procedure wherein the participant can participate safely and confidentially. 

Confidentiality Issues and Consent Forms

Understanding the abused adult’s situation will help you to anticipate how to protect his or her confidentiality. For some abused adults, their abuser may still be in their lives and if the abuser found out about the victim participating in a study about abuse, it may incite further harm to the victim. Navigating abuse is a serious challenge for the victim and it may not be something that he or she is willing or able to share with their friends, coworkers, other family members, etc. It is important that you consider how to approach the victim about the study, where the study will take place, and how the data are collected and stored so that privacy and confidentiality will be protected. Even providing the participant with a pamphlet about the study may not be wise if it could link the participant to the abuse study.

There may be instances in which confidentiality has to be compromised. If you learn of new instances of abuse, you may consider reporting the abuse. If you will ask the adult questions about illegal behaviors, such as drug use, etc, you may need to obtain a certificate of confidentiality. If it is likely that they will tell you this information and it isn’t in the scope of your study, you need to have a procedure so that this information is not documented; for example, if you are conducting an interview, start the interview by instructing the participant not to include information about illegal behaviors in the interview. If it comes up anyway, you could stop the interview, remind the participant not to provide the information about illegal behaviors, and erase that part of the interview.

If the potential exists that you may have to compromise confidentiality, you should provide this information in the consent form in the “Confidentiality” section; provide the participants with specifics about what would prompt you to break confidentiality and what information will be shared. For example, see the sample text below:

Consent form text (please modify so that it is appropriate for the participants’ reading level): I have ethical obligations to report suspected abuse and to prevent you or others from carrying out threats or doing serious harm. If keeping information obtained in this study private would immediately put your and/or another person in danger, I will release that information.

Reporting Domestic Abuse

What is domestic abuse?
Domestic abuse can take many forms from the inward signs of emotional abuse and sexual abuse to the more obvious outward signs of physical abuse. As a researcher, you may encounter both the victim and the victimizer. The Women’s Place at UVA has an excellent site that defines emotional, physical, and sexual abuse and provides information on the signs of abuse. This site can be a good resource to provide to your participants if you suspect they may be victims of abuse.

In this section, the discussion of abuse is meant to cover known on-going events, or the suspicion of an event that has already occurred. In the event that you become aware of an immediate and specific threat to harm someone, you may have legal obligations to report the event to the authorities. For more information, please see Immediate Threat.

What are my responsibilities to report domestic abuse?
As a researcher, you do not have specific legal responsibilities for reporting abuse. However, you should consider the well-being of your participants and act in their best interests, as stated in the Belmont Report. Often these situations are delicate and require experienced individuals to council the participant. If you do not have certified experience in helping an abused individual, do not council your participant or become involved in the situation. Inappropriate action may put the participant at greater risk. As you are working with an adult, the more appropriate step may be to refer the participant to resources that can help them, such as a hotline or shelter (as the situation warrants) instead of simply calling the police. However, if you become aware of a specific and immediate threat to harm your participant, or if your participant expresses intentions to harm herself or another, you should contact the appropriate authorities. Please note that mental health service providers have a duty to take precautions to protect third parties from violent behavior or other serious harm when a specific and immediate threat to cause serious bodily injury or death has been communicated. For more information, please see Immediate Threat.

What should I do if I suspect domestic abuse?
Providing a list of resources for the participant to use is one way to respond to suspicions of domestic abuse. For research focusing on such issues, the Board will require that a list of resources be provided to all participants in the study. See Confidential Advocates and Just Report It for additional UVA resources.