Predicting child abuse and neglect: ethical, theoretical and methodological challenges

J Clin Nurs. 2008 May;17(9):1193-200. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2702.2007.02192.x.


Aims: This paper explores the ethical, theoretical and methodological implications of predictive testing in studies of child abuse, neglect and harm.

Background: The use of screening instruments to make predictions about children who may later be abused, neglected or at risk of exclusion is promoted in research and policy. The recent UK Action Plan on Social Exclusion suggests that health visitors and community midwives should be trained to use these tools in practice.

Method: Position paper.

Conclusions: The accuracy of screening instruments to identify children who will be abused or neglected has not been established. Even if the theoretical and methodological challenges of predictive instruments could be overcome, the ethical implications of their use are very difficult for nurses and midwives.

Relevance to clinical practice: Nurses, midwives and health visitors require high levels of awareness of risk factors in working with children and families. We have a responsibility to reach professional judgements about risks of harm for individuals. This is best performed through improving skills in working with parents and carers to identify those factors which may impede their ability to offer safe developmental care to their children.

MeSH terms

  • Child Abuse* / prevention & control
  • Ethics*
  • Female
  • House Calls
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Mass Screening / instrumentation
  • Midwifery
  • Models, Theoretical*
  • Risk Assessment / ethics
  • United Kingdom
  • United States