‘Do no harm’? Rethinking risk and harm narratives in abuse-focused research with children

Beckett, Helen and Warrington, Camille (2024) ‘Do no harm’? Rethinking risk and harm narratives in abuse-focused research with children. Child Protection and Practice, 2 . ISSN 2950-1938

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Official URL: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chipro.2024.100037


Despite increasing recognition of children’s right to have a say about matters that affect them (Article 12, United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child), this right is often denied in the context of child abuse research. This article explores the ways in which ethical decision-making can contribute to the denial of this right and the negative implications of this at both an individual and societal level.

Ethical decision-making that stymies the conduct of abuse-focused research with children is usually justified with reference to protecting participants from risk of harm. Whilst in no way suggesting that this is not a critical consideration, the authors question the simplistic and deterministic ways in which this can be understood within ethical decision-making, and the unnecessarily risk-averse decisions that can ensue.

Sharing examples from their cumulative 30 years’ experience of engaging children and young people in abuse-focused research, the authors stress the need for a more holistic, nuanced and dynamic approach to assessing and managing risk of harm. This would consider risks of both inclusion and exclusion. Understanding that risk and harm are neither static nor universally experienced concepts, it would recognise the implausibility of the ‘do no harm’ guarantees often expected of social researchers. Instead, informed by rights-respecting and trauma-informed perspectives, it would focus on holistically promoting participant wellbeing in, and through, research. Key to this is permitting, and supporting, researchers to exercise contextually-informed, collaborative decision-making in the field; something the authors share their emerging practice framework for.

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