Case Study: Study of Pennsylvanians’ Knowledge and Attitudes about Child Abuse and Neglect, for the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance and PPO&S 

The Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance advocates for legislation, policies, and programs that prevent child abuse and neglect, provides information and educational materials about abuse and neglect, and offers programs that promote positive parenting. In fall 2013, PFSA commissioned the Center for Opinion Research and PPO&S to examine the prevailing attitudes and social norms about child abuse and neglect in Pennsylvania. In particular, PFSA wanted to learn how the public thinks about child abuse and neglect, and learn what motivates citizens to report such abuse.

To answer these questions, we designed an extensive study that included eight focus groups held throughout the state (in Bedford, Clarion, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh), and a statewide telephone survey of 1,004 Pennsylvania residents. We identified the following key areas for examination: Beliefs about what constitutes abuse; awareness of the problem; barriers to taking action when abuse or neglect is suspected; reactions to consumer messages about abuse; and best predictors for reporting abuse. Results from the focus groups helped inform the development of the telephone survey. In addition, the combined methodology made it possible to have both an in-depth understanding of citizens’ thoughts on the issues, and a broad quantitative understanding of the distribution of opinions within the state.

For the focus groups, we worked in close consultation with PFSA’s team to create a moderator’s guide to encourage conversation about: 1) what people perceive as abuse and neglect, 2) how likely people are to become involved when they see abusive behaviors, and 3) how people respond to different consumer messages that encourage them to learn more about abuse. During the discussions, participants were asked about different scenarios that might be abusive, and asked to rate the seriousness of each in terms of risk to the child as well as the likelihood of their personal involvement. In addition, they were shown a series of seven concepts for consumer messages and asked to select the one that would encourage them to learn more about child abuse and neglect.

All focus group sessions were recorded and then transcribed to allow for thoughtful review of the discussions. (Participants were asked their permission to record, and no names were used in the transcription, to maintain confidentiality.) Participants’ comments were then reviewed and categorized to identify major themes. Our analysis showed that conversations about abuse and neglect move quickly into conversations about discipline, including ambiguity about what constitutes abuse, and the context of behaviors that makes identifying abuse uncertain. This uncertainty contributes to lack of reporting; other impediments to action include lack of knowledge, fear of retaliation, and perceived legal system ineffectiveness.

The telephone survey was designed to help frame and interpret the results of the focus groups. PFSA was particularly interested in more information about awareness of the problem of abuse, and what determines who is likely to report abuse. Specific questions focused on whether respondents knew how to report abuse, whether they believed abuse and neglect is a very serious problem, whether they had ever attended any child abuse training, if they had ever reported abuse or neglect, and how interested they were in learning more about recognizing and reporting child abuse.

By analyzing both the qualitative and quantitative data, the Center provided PFSA with a broad and detailed picture of Pennsylvanians’ knowledge of and attitudes about child abuse and neglect. Our reports included narrative discussions of our impressions and analysis of the focus groups, along with visual representations of the focus group discussions such as word clouds. These were presented alongside charts and graphs that displayed the quantitative data collected in the telephone survey. PFSA is using the research results to support efforts to educate citizens, correct common misperceptions, and increase the likelihood that abuse and neglect will be reported. PFSA has also published a report, based on the Center’s research, called Childhood at Risk: An Exploration of Perceptions and Attitudes Regarding Child Abuse. In addition, director Berwood Yost presented the research results to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Children and Youth Committee in June 2014. Click here to read PFSA’s Childhood at Risk report.