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Archive provides scholars with data on child abuse.

When 150 school children were murdered by terrorists in Russia last September, their brutal and untimely death caused worldwide indignation and mourning. It was a tragic loss of unfulfilled lives. Ten times that many children die each year in the United States, but they rarely are mentioned on the national news--they are victims of abuse and neglect. The real number actually is higher. As many as 50 to 60 percent of incidents go unreported, according to recent studies in Colorado and North Carolina.


Some of the deaths that are officially labeled as accidents, child homicides, and sudden infant death syndrome probably could have been classified as cases of child abuse or neglect if more thorough investigations were conducted or if national standards existed for coding abuse on death certificates.


But the numbers of deaths are small by comparison to the number of children who survive abuse and neglect each year. In 2002, an estimated 896,000 children were found to be victims of maltreatment in the United States. Like the fatalities, more undetected cases undoubtedly occur. It is this population of children that endure the lifelong effects of long- and even short-term abuse and, sometimes, perpetuate the cycle. These children are also the ones who provide researchers with data on the causes and effects of child abuse and neglect, as well as the effectiveness of treatment programs.

John Eckenrode, professor of human development, co-director of Cornell's Family Life Development Center, and an authority on child maltreatment, divides his time among teaching, research, and making research data on child abuse and neglect accessible to scholars in the field.

"When we think about a national strategy to address the problem of child abuse and neglect, a number of pieces need to be in place," he says. "Certainly one of those pieces is development of an adequate research base. Various reviews of the state of child abuse and neglect research have been conducted over the years, including by the National Academy of Sciences. Those reviews are in agreement that knowledge in the field is inadequate and needs improvement and that once knowledge has been generated it is poorly disseminated."

With initial funding in 1988 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Children's Bureau, Eckenrode helped establish the National Data Archive for Child Abuse and Neglect (NDACAN) in the college's Family Life Development Center (FLDC). The data archive is part of the FLDC's research arm.

Most of FLDC's activities are outreach and extension programs aimed at improving professional and public efforts to understand--and act upon--factors that put families, children, and youth at risk. Preventing childhood and spousal violence; evaluating programs designed to prevent child abuse and neglect; enhancing community-based youth development efforts; improving intergenerational communication about HIV/AIDS; and acquiring, preserving, and disseminating data relevant to the study of child maltreatment--these are among FLDC's objectives.

NDACAN was established to support the research of scholars investigating child maltreatment by promoting secondary data analysis that advances scientific understanding. The archive acquires and processes original data collected by investigators and the federal government on child maltreatment and makes this information accessible to qualified researchers so that they can conduct their own analyses. It has become the largest of the federal data dissemination efforts in the field of child abuse and neglect.

Typical NDACAN users are academic researchers from a variety of fields--such as psychology, sociology, social work, medicine, nursing--who want easy access to high-quality, well-documented data. The scope of the data covers all areas of child abuse and neglect research, including causes and effects, prevention, intervention, and treatment.

The main portal to the archive is the web site, which averages 2,500 inquiries per day. NDACAN began using the Internet in 1992 and was among the first in the field to deliver data in portable files--on diskettes and by file-transfer protocol. Most of the archive's approximately 42 datasets, organized according to subject or investigation, can be ordered through its web site. Several more are being prepared for release in the near future. In addition to the datasets, NDACAN provides free technical support to both contributors and users--from advice on hardware and software configurations to troubleshooting and consultation on data processing and documentation.

The NDACAN web site hosts an electronic mailing list that enables users to share information with and pose questions to researchers, practitioners, and administrators in the field. The list has about 900 subscribers at present. NDACAN also distributes a printed newsletter to more than 3,700 people each year.

"We're here to support researchers, to help them get their analyses farther along so that they can write papers and get them into the literature," explains Eckenrode. "The primary products of this activity are publications of various kinds--articles in disciplinary journals, chapters in books, and conference presentations."

Data submitted to the archive come from a variety of sources, but primarily from researchers who have been funded by the federal government. Eckenrode says that the Children's Bureau requires its research grantees to archive their data once a project is completed; NDACAN is the facility they use to comply with this requirement if they are doing research on child abuse and neglect. NDACAN also receives voluntary contributions of data from researchers who may not be required to archive their data but whom Eckenrode and his staff have approached, or who have approached NDACAN, about contributing to the archive. Some of Eckenrode's research also is contained in the archive.

The other major source of data is the federal government. Federal agencies, particularly the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, collect data on an ongoing basis from each of the states, which are required to file annual reports on child abuse and neglect, as well as data regarding children in foster care and adopted children. Once the federal government gets these data, it supplies them to NDACAN.

These are large datasets, Eckenrode points out. On any given day, about a half-million children are in foster care in the United States. Add this to the nearly one million victims of child abuse and neglect reported each year, and NDACAN receives, processes, and redistributes hundreds of thousands of federal government records annually.

The subsequent sharing of all this information via NDACAN not only helps to verify original findings and ensure that data are not lost, but it also allows the data to be utilized most fully and to be accessible to the research community. Since research on child maltreatment is often difficult to carry out due to obstacles involving access to high-risk families, children, and confidential records, having disparate research findings available in one place is extremely valuable for researchers.

These same confidentiality issues, however, pose a challenge to NDACAN's role as a disseminator of data. To protect sensitive information, NDACAN has never placed data from the archive on the Internet for public download or online analysis. Documentation and some summary statistics are available online, but actual case-level data is not.

"The concern is that by combining certain pieces of information, individual research participants could be identified, even if their names and addresses are not in the data files," explains Eckenrode.

For example, if there was a sexual abuse case in a certain year involving a child of a certain age and gender from a relatively small county, and the perpetrator had a certain occupation, it might be possible for someone to figure out the identity of the child or the alleged perpetrator if a person had access to other information (for example, newspaper reports).

"We take care to make the chances extremely unlikely that such disclosures could occur," he says. "We might not give precise birthdays of children, only their age in years, or we might aggregate data from several contiguous small counties to form a larger geographic unit. Archives must take an active role in ensuring that confidential data remains confidential if they wish to continue providing data to researchers for the purpose of secondary analysis." While the Internet will continue to be NDACAN's primary source of information dissemination, restrictions will remain on accessing the data.

The archive has adopted other precautions in response to contributors' concerns about the security of their data. Researchers worry that a secondary analyst might publish a set of findings from the data before they do. In response to this, NDACAN recommended to the Children's Bureau that investigators be given two years of exclusive use before being required to archive their data. Researchers also are concerned about repercussions to their reputations if a secondary analyst uses or publishes data from their study in an irresponsible way. They additionally worry that the publication of findings from the same dataset by different authors will result in a disjointed body of literature that lacks the single, coherent vision of the original investigator.

To ameliorate these concerns, NDACAN created a "Terms of Use Agreement" that removes all liability from the contributor. To ensure that data are handled responsibly, NDACAN staff members offer contributors assistance with preparing studies for archiving and also training in the process of secondary analysis.

"NDACAN is not a passive organization, not just a repository of data," Eckenrode explains. "It is our responsibility to be proactive by thinking of new ways to reach the research community, educate them about the benefits of secondary analysis, and provide technical assistance and user support."

In addition to its careful handling of data and the diverse services it offers, NDACAN organizes a number of conferences and workshops. One of the staff's favorite programs is NDACAN's Summer Research Institute, which has met every year since 1993. The week-long workshop offers an intensive experience in secondary data analysis that combines colloquia with hands-on computing sessions.

"We bring a group of 12 to 15 researchers to the Cornell campus for about four days in the beginning of the summer to work directly with the data we have and to get assistance in using the archive," he explains. "It's a labor-intensive activity but fun and very rewarding for us as well as for the participants, who have an opportunity to network and collaborate with other scholars in the field."

During one recent institute, Eckenrode says, a researcher from Israel met and developed relationships with researchers from across the United States. His presence led to interesting discussions about child maltreatment in an international context.

Currently the NDACAN staff consists of Eckenrode, who works with the archive part-time because of his teaching, research, and administrative responsibilities, and four others. Elliott Smith, research associate, serves as associate director; Michael Dineen as coordinator of technical services; Holly Larrabee-Warner as support and acquisitions specialist; and Andres Arroyo as administrative assistant. Eckenrode hopes to secure federal funding to expand NDACAN staff and services. He would like to hire someone to specialize in working with the larger federal and state datasets and, eventually, to offer customized analyses to make it easier for users to access and analyze the data.

Although NDACAN is not set up to be an institute that recommends policies, Eckenrode hopes that information about the nature and consequences of child abuse and neglect will serve as the rationale for policy decisions.

"Any time a policymaker wants to cite statistics with regard to how many children are maltreated, what kinds of maltreatment occurs, or whether child abuse and neglect is getting better or worse over time, NDACAN is the place with the data," he says.

Every year the federal government publishes reports on the size and scope of the child abuse and neglect problem and makes policy recommendations. "Our archive tends to include basic research on children who are maltreated and the effects of maltreatment on those children and families, and this kind of information is often the basis for program and policy recommendations," Eckenrode explains. "Any enlightened policy needs to have as its core an understanding of the phenomena that is being addressed."

For more information, contact

John Eckenrode

Cornell University

Family Life Development Center

Martha Van Rensselaer Hall

Ithaca, New York 14853


Information also is accessible online at: WWW.NDACAN.CORNELL.EDU

RELATED ARTICLE: Safe and Sound: A Crisis-Prevention Program for Residential Child Care

"ALL OF OUR WORK is based on the concept espoused by Urie Bronfenbrenner [Cornell professor emeritus of human development] that every child needs one adult who is crazy about him," says Michael Nunno, senior extension associate and principal investigator of the Residential Child Care Project in the Family Life Development Center.

For some children, that adult is not always a parent. Nearly 400,000 children in the United States live in out-of-home residential care facilities. Half of them are there because they have been abused and neglected at home. Their placement in these facilities, however, does not ensure their protection. Research suggests that the incidence of maltreatment in child care facilities actually may be double or triple the number of reported family abuse cases.

"Every child in a facility needs adults who help ensure safety," says Nunno. "The entire facility should be permeated with the language of safety."

That is the goal that Nunno works hard to accomplish. He implements, monitors, and evaluates the Therapeutic Crisis Intervention (TCI) system at facilities that care for aggressive and acting-out children. Developed at Cornell in the early 1980s with grants from New York State and the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, TCI assists organizations in adopting crisis prevention and management strategies that reduce their use of intervention tactics that can injure children.

The 18-month TCI program provides a highly structured curriculum that gives child care workers the knowledge and skills to prevent and de-escalate situations in which children become aggressive and to help children when they are at their most destructive. Based on principles established in the Convention of the Rights of the Child, adopted by the United Nations, the program is used extensively in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and Israel. Hundreds of residential child care facilities use TCI, and 4,000 people have become certified TCI trainers.

"One of the things we realized early was that the reason kids were getting abused and hurt in child care facilities was because workers did not know how to deal with them," says Nunno. "Many of the children who enter residential care have been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused, so they come into a facility with a fair amount of pain and inability to cope with their own agitation and aggression. We work to make facilities recognize that they have to be ready for those realities. Their charge is to help these children learn appropriate ways of handling their emotions--not re-abuse them."

TCI is based on the premise that adults' attitudes and responses are key to resolving a child's crisis. It teaches child care staff to interpret children's aggressive behaviors as expressions of needs and to respond not to the behavior but to what is behind the behavior: pain and feelings of frustration.

"Children who have been abused in their families interact with adults in the facility much like they interacted with the adults outside who abused them," Nunno explains. "Many adults working in facilities fall into the trap of responding to a child's anger and aggressiveness with counter-aggression, but this only adds to the conflict cycle. Our program trains staff to stop the conflict cycle."

Most incidents of institutional abuse or neglect are not sadistically motivated but occur out of workers' frustration and inability to handle their own anger at defiant youth who seem impervious to treatment. Lack of knowledge and skills exacerbate the situation. Often counter-aggression on the part of staff is a misguided attempt to gain control.

"Adopting an attitude of control is not effective if what you want is to get a kid on a developmental path so that she can return to some sense of normalcy in her life and be able to control her emotions and frustrations," Nunno warns. "Trying to get a child to do what you want her to do usually is going to have the complete opposite effect. Instead, you must address the feelings behind the behavior."

Talking to a child about his behavior in psychological language will turn him off, Nunno explains. The child can, instead, be told that his behavior might not be safe. "When you interpret behavior in the language of safety, children open up and start to say things like, 'I'm afraid of doing that' or 'It's too painful for me to try that.' When they talk about their fears, they talk about their pain. That's when an adult can take the first steps toward getting the child to try new ways of interacting. Without that safety, attempting behavior change is not going to work."

Inevitably, even in the most caring and therapeutic environment, a child's behavior may become dangerous to himself or others. While restraint is not a desirable option, because it can lead to injury and sometimes death, it is sometimes necessary. But using restraint is a psychologically complex and subtle interaction. Restraint can compromise a child's dignity and autonomy and, if done for the wrong reasons or in the wrong way, may send a message that bigger, stronger people can make others do what they want. That kind of message encourages rather than discourages aggressive behavior, which is not going to heal a troubled child.

If restraint must be used, the TCI method provides training that has been proven to decrease the number of injuries to children. Developmentally appropriate physical management techniques are taught to ensure the child's aggression is safely contained. Staff members also are trained in how to use acting-out incidents as opportunities to help children learn and grow.

In addition to training and implementation, TCI includes evaluations on the success of programs. Data on crisis incidents that occurred before and after TCI are contrasted, and pre- and post-implementation interviews with staff members and supervisors are reviewed.

TCI has a consistent record of reducing the number of incidents where restraint is used on children. The program also boosts child care workers' confidence and morale. Staff members report feeling more confident about their ability to manage crises. They also feel better about their coworkers' ability to manage crises and about working in teams where people assist and support one another. Having an institutional framework of policies and procedures to follow reduces staff members' feelings of inadequacy about what to do in crisis situations and increases their confidence in helping children learn to cope. In those instances when restraint is used, fewer injuries to children occur.

On average, children stay in child care facilities for a few months to about a year, says Nunno. He emphasizes that residential facilities have only a small window of opportunity for turning these children's lives around.

"Many of these kids do not trust adults. They've had bad experiences with them. They've had abusive relationships," he says. "Children need to feel a sense of safety in their interactions with adults. If there isn't this sense of safety, these kids aren't going to get better."

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Author:Ulrich, Clare
Publication:Human Ecology
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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