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Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, Vol. 23, No. 3, June 2006 ( 2006) DOI: 10.

1007/s10560-006-0051-z

Defining child abuse: Exploring variations in ratings of discipline severity among child welfare practitioners

Stephen D. Whitney M.S., Emiko A. Tajima Ph.D., Todd I. Herrenkohl Ph.D., and Bu Huang Ph.D.
ABSTRACT: This study investigated child welfare practitioners ratings of the severity of parental discipline practices. Ratings varied by the type of act, age of the child, and by chronicity. Exploratory investigation into changes across time found that current practitioners (N = 27) rated several practices (e.g. spanking and shaking) as more severe than did professionals (N = 24) sampled in 1977. Results underscore the complexity of dening child maltreatment and offer implications for practitioners, applied researchers, and child welfare policy makers. KEY WORDS: Child abuse; Severity ratings; Discipline practices; Denition.

Background Child development researchers investigating child abuse sequelae or evaluating therapeutic interventions face the difcult task of operationally dening child maltreatment. There currently is no clear agreement among researchers about what constitutes child abuse
The authors Stephen D. Whitney, Emiko A. Tajima, Todd I. Herrenkohl, and Bu Huang are afliated with the School of Social Work, University of Washington. Work on this project is supported by funds from the Social Work Prevention Research Center, School of Social Work, University of Washington (National Institute of Mental Health Grant R24MH56599, Lewayne Gilchrist, PI) and by the University of Washington Royalty Research Fund. Address correspondence to Emiko A. Tajima Ph.D., School of Social Work, University of Washington, 4101 15th Ave. N.E., Seattle, WA, 98105, USA; e-mail: etajima@ u.washington.edu 316
2006 Springer ScienceBusiness Media, Inc.

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(Giovannoni, 1989; Hutchison, 1990; Korbin, 1987; National Research Council, 2002; Straus & Gelles, 1990). Researchers operationally dene child maltreatment using a variety of methods and measures (e.g., observation, self-report, or ofcial report). Consequently, what is operationally dened as abuse in one study may not be considered as such in another. In addition, the lack of consistency in methods and measures can lead to different and sometimes conicting ndings regarding the incidence, prevalence and effects of child maltreatment (Giovannoni, 1989). Dening abuse may be further complicated by differences in how an act is perceived based on the age of the child at the time of the abusive act, as well as the frequency of the act. While some discipline practices (e.g., burning a child with a cigarette) are clearly abusive, regardless of the age of the child or the frequency of the act, others, such as shaking a child, may be regarded by some as non-abusive if they are directed to an adolescent or occur as a one-time event with a school-age child. The broader context of an act also inuences whether it is considered abusive (National Research Council, 1993). Contextual factors include the legal denition of abuse, cultural norms regarding the act, the intention of the actor, the relationship of the caregiver to the child, the consequences of the act (e.g., injuries), and the historical time in which the act occurred (National Research Council, 1993; Portwood, 1999). Researchers attempting to dene child maltreatment can benet greatly from consultation with practitioners in the eld of child welfare. Gathering data from practitioners with rst hand experience responding to abuse and neglect cases can help researchers develop measures that are valid and relevant to the eld. Perceptions of public child welfare practitioners are particularly valuable, as these are the professionals charged with investigating and intervening in cases of alleged child maltreatment. This study surveys child welfare professionals to explore how several factors (type of act, frequency, age of the child, and historical time period) affect severity ratings of various discipline practices. Some of the earliest work on dening child maltreatment did, in fact, draw on the perceptions of professionals. For example, Giovannoni and Beccera (1979) surveyed lawyers, pediatricians, social workers and police ofcers. They found that physical abuse and sexual abuse were rated as being most severe across all of the professional groups. Acts of neglect were rated below physical and sexual

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abuse in severity and emotional abuse was rated as being the least severe form of abuse. In addition, there was considerable variability in responses for each type of maltreatment. For example, of the different forms of physical discipline, burning a child was rated as highly severe (it had an overall rating of 8.45 out of a 9-point scale) whereas spanking a child with a leather strap was rated as only moderately severe (it had a severity rating of 4.76). The present study sought to document child welfare practitioners perceptions of the relative severity of both physical and non-physical discipline practices. Several researchers have argued for the inclusion of age of the child in any denition of child maltreatment (Flynn, 1998). For example, in their 1993 report on child abuse and neglect, the National Research Council recommended that the developmental level of the child be taken into account when forming an operational denition of child maltreatment. Several other researchers also concluded that the developmental level of the child plays a signicant role in determining the severity of the act and the impact the act might have on the childs future development (Aber & Zigler, 1981; Cicchetti & Manly, 1990; McGee & Wolfe, 1991; Polansky, Borgman, & DeSaix, 1972). For example, The National Study of the Incidence and Severity of Child Abuse and Neglect found that child maltreatment was more likely to be reported if the child was under 6 years of age when compared to children 1217 years old (6022%). This nding suggests that professionals who make judgments about whether or not to report child maltreatment may use the childs age as a determining factor (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1981, as reported in Giovannoni, 1989). The present study, therefore, sought to investigate the extent to which age of the child affects severity ratings of public child welfare practitioners. Frequency may also play a role in determining which acts are abusive. The National Research Council (1993) called for researchers to make a clear distinction between chronic patterns of abuse and explosive single episodes of abuse. The panel argued that considering the chronicity of maltreatment will help researchers rene understanding of the etiology of child maltreatment. In addition, it is argued that research into the frequency of the act may allow researchers to understand the unique effects, if any, of single episodes of maltreatment versus chronic patterns of abuse. Zuravin (1991) and Portwood (1999) too, call for further research on the

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question of how frequency affects the denition of child maltreatment; both agree that frequency plays a role in dening child maltreatment although only for those behaviors that do not cause serious injury. When a serious injury is sustained, these researchers believe that one act is enough to qualify as abuse. Zuravin (1991) argued that less severe behavior, such as grabbing, shaking, and spanking, need a level of chronicity before they are to be considered abusive. Whipple and Richey (1997) reviewed the literature in an attempt to quantify abusive levels of spanking. They summarized the results of ve studies that examined the rate of spanking among abusive and non-abusive parents. Abusive parents were dened as parents in treatment for reported child abuse or from child protective services (CPS) case les. Non-abusive parents were those with no substantiated cases of abuse. In the ve studies examined, the childrens ages ranged between 4 and 12-years-old. Results revealed that non-abusive parents spanked their children an average of 2.5 times in a 24-hour period. On average, abusive parents spanked their children six or more times a day, two standard deviations above the mean. While this study does not speak to the issue of whether the act of spanking itself is abusive, it attempted to quantify abusive levels of the behavior and it highlights the correlation between frequent spanking and ofcially reported abuse. The present study investigates whether and to what extent the frequency of a given act impacts its perceived severity. Our analyses will help identify the frequency level at which a given discipline practice becomes dened as abusive by practitioners in child welfare. We also seek to identify those practices that are deemed abusive regardless of their frequency. The historical time period in which the act occurs may play a role in dening which acts are considered abusive. For example, Straus and Gelles (1986) found that rates of child abuse declined between 1975 and 1985 and suggested that one possible reason for this decline was a change in how child abuse was viewed in the United States. Similarly, Straus and Mathur (1996) found that rates of corporal punishment declined from 1968 to 1994. They also found a parallel decrease in approval of corporal punishment among the general public between 1968 (94% approval rating) and 1994 (68% approval rating). Although the drop in approval ratings was apparent regardless of gender, race and education, some declines were sharper than others. For example, compared to women, men showed

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fewer declines in their rejection of spanking as an appropriate discipline practice. Racial/ethnic differences were also noted. African Americans showed less decrease in their approval of corporal punishment than Anglo-Americans or other racial groups. No difference in the level of decrease was noted based upon the income level of the participants. Following the work of Straus and Gelles (1986), and Straus and Mathur (1996), it is reasonable to hypothesize that the acceptability of other forms of discipline may have diminished over time as well. The present study therefore also includes exploratory investigation of differences in severity ratings across two time periods. For this exploratory analysis, data collected in 2001 regarding the severity of parental discipline practices were compared to ratings collected by researchers 25 years earlier.

Method This research began as an attempt to validate child maltreatment constructs for a separate study of the developmental consequences of abuse. Specically, we sought to use discipline severity ratings among a sample (N = 27) of child welfare practitioners to help determine which items to include in our measures of child abuse. As the current validation study progressed, it was evident that the data offered the opportunity to address some of the measurement and definitional issues summarized above. Using survey data gathered from child welfare practitioners in 2001, we explored the impact of three factors (the type of act, the age of the child when the act occurred and the frequency of the act) on severity ratings. Analyses were conducted using ANOVA with post hoc analyses. To control for the ination of type I error that occurs when multiple comparisons are conducted with a small sample size, only ve items were selected to examine the possible effects of age and frequency on practitioners responses. Following the literature (Gershoff, 2002; Shepherd & Sampson, 2000; Straus & Mathur, 1996; Vissing, Straus, Gelles, & Harrop, 1991) we selected for further analysis practices that represent more ambiguous or potentially controversial discipline practices, such as corporal punishment, and psychological/emotional abuse. These ve focus items included spanking the child, shaking the child, threatening to spank, yelling or shouting at the child, and embarrassing the child in front of others.

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Participants In the 2001 survey, data were gathered from an independent panel of child welfare practitioners (27 in total). The sample included professionals with experience in public child welfare (N = 13) and graduate students working in public child welfare services (N = 14). The graduate students (Title IV E) were all enrolled at the University of Washington School of Social Work. The 2001 survey participants had an average of over 10 years of experience in the eld of social work; 63% of the sample worked directly in the eld of child welfare at the time of the survey. The sample is comprised mostly of women (78%). A majority of the sample is Caucasian (72%); African-Americans comprise 16%, Asian-Americans 8%, and Native Americans 4%. The age range for the sample is 2462 years, with a mean of 39 years. Surveys were voluntary and anonymous. For the 2001 survey, questionnaires were placed in student mailboxes or mailed to participants. Surveys were returned by self-addressed stamped mail or placed in a secure box located on campus. The response rate for the 2001 sample was 41.5% (27 out of 65). Survey Instrument: Parental Discipline Practices Questionnaire The questionnaire measured the severity of 39 parental discipline practices that pertained to categories of non-violent discipline, psychological/emotional discipline, physical neglect, and physical discipline. Respondents were asked to rate the severity of each practice based a given age of the child and a given frequency of the act. Age categories included 02, 35, 611, and 1217 years, and frequency levels included: rarely (13 times a year), occasionally (less than once a month), often (at least once a month), and frequently (more than once a week). Response options included three levels of severity: (1) neither severe nor abusive, (2) severely punishing, or (3) abusive. In total the survey yields 624 individual items for analysis. The scores on the questionnaire showed strong reliability, with a standardized item alpha of .93 when the 39 items are collapsed across age and frequency, indicating respondents rated similar items in the same direction. Items for the questionnaire had originally been developed in 1977. The 2001 version of the Parental Discipline Practices Questionnaire included the same 28 items as the 1977 version of the questionnaire, and also included 11 addition items which were added to validate constructs for a separate study on the effects of

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child abuse (Herrenkohl, Tajima, Whitney, & Huang, 2005). Table 1 shows all of the items contained in the 2001 survey. Those items that were added in 2001 are marked with an *. Exploratory Comparison of 1977 and 2001 Surveys A similar construct validation process had been carried out in 1977, when the data used in our study were rst collected (Herrenkohl, Herrenkohl, Egolf, & Wu, 1991). The existence of severity ratings obtained 25 years prior offered an opportunity to compare ratings across time, albeit with different samples. Thus, a secondary, exploratory aim was to compare whether these factors differentially affected severity ratings of professionals in 2001 and 1977. Archived information about the 1977 survey was limited. The 1977 survey was distributed to participants by hand and returned through the mail or in person. Specic response rate information was not available. Data were gathered from child welfare professionals (N = 14) and researchers in the eld (N = 10) (24 in total). Those included in the study were experienced in child welfare issues and were either directly involved in protective services or were conducting applied research on the topic. This sample was comprised of individuals living in Pennsylvania and the Washington, D.C. area. The racial composition of the sample was predominantly Caucasian. The majority of the participants (75%) were female. The questionnaire administered in 2001 differed slightly in how frequency was evaluated. The original survey administered in 1977 had only three frequency levels: occasionally, often, and frequently; whereas the 2001 survey had four: rarely, occasionally, often, and frequently. The 2001 survey included more options to better assess variation in severity ratings associated with more subtle shifts in frequency. When the exploratory comparison analysis was conducted, the category rarely (13 times a year) was dropped from the 2001 data in order to match frequency levels between the 2001 and 1977 samples. Limitations The present study has notable limitations. Our 2001 sample was a small, convenience sample, consisting partly of graduate students at a single institution. The survey was voluntary, thus respondents were a self-selected group. These factors all affect the

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TABLE 1 Items and Ascending Severity Ratings for the 2001 Sample

Item Warning child about the consequences of childs behavior* Explaining to or reasoning with child Making child stop and think about what child is doingmaking child take a time out* Taking some privilege away from child Restricting or grounding child to the house Yelling or shouting at child Isolating child in a room for an hour or more Slapping childs hands or legs Ignoring child (i.e. refusing to talk with child) Threatening to spank or hit child Spanking child Embarrassing child in front of others Pinching child* Ridiculing or making fun of child Washing childs mouth out with soap Taking meals away Telling child that child is no good, stupid* Putting pepper in childs mouth Shaking child Threatening to send child away Pulling childs hair Slapping child face Hitting child with a stick, paddle, or other hard object Locking child out of the house Isolating child in a dark room or closet Binding or tying child, for example, with rope or wire* Hitting child with a st, punching child* Kicking child* Biting child Hitting or paddling so as to bruise child Slapping or spanking so as to bruise child Biting so as to bruise child

Mean 1.04 1.04 1.15 1.33 1.42 2.02 2.05 2.09 2.15 2.17 2.36 2.44 2.53 2.57 2.68 2.68 2.73 2.80 2.81 2.81 2.82 2.85 2.89 2.90 2.91 2.91 2.96 2.97 2.97 2.97 2.98 2.98

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TABLE 1. Continued

Item Hitting child with a strap, rope, or belt Burning child, for example, with a cigarette, hot coffee, or a stove Burning so as to leave burn marks on child Threatening to kill child* Threatening child with a knife, gun* Holding childs head under water until child chokes* Cutting child with a knife or other sharp object*
1 = neither severe nor abusive, 2 = severely punishing, 3 = abusive. * Items added in 2001 version of questionnaire.

Mean 2.99 3.00 3.00 3.00 3.00 3.00 3.00

generalizablity of the results. Given that we planned exploratory analysis of possible change over time, in 2001 we mirrored the 1977 sample in that we targeted professionals with direct service experience in the eld of child welfare and who were informed about the subject of child maltreatment. Although the samples were not matched on specic characteristics, both samples thus represent ratings of professionals knowledgeable about child welfare. However, differences between the samples could arguably explain differences in severity ratings identied across the 1977 and 2001 samples. For example, variation in severity ratings may be related to differences in demographic characteristics or the fact that respondents in 2001 were professionals and graduate student practitioners in the eld of child welfare, whereas the 1977 sample also included researchers. Regional differences might also account for variation in ratings, as respondents in the 1977 survey lived in the Northeast, while the 2001 sample was from the Northwest. Prior research into regional differences in rates of child maltreatment or acceptance of physical discipline practices has shown that Southern regions tend to be more accepting of physical punishment. For example, Straus and Mathur (1996) noted decreased approval of corporal punishment (between 1968 and 1994) across all regions of the US, however the South noted the least decrease and showed the highest rates of

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approval. Differences between the Northwest and Northeast have not been highlighted in prior research. Differences between the two samples necessarily limit our ability to attribute differences to actual changes in historical context. Our investigation into this topic is therefore purely exploratory, yet our ndings are consistent with other literature (e.g., Straus & Mathur, 1996) and offer direction for future longitudinal study.

Results Severity Ratings by Item (2001 Practitioner Survey) Table 1 shows practitioners mean severity ratings for each parental discipline practice. This initial analysis was conducted collapsing the data across age groups and frequency levels to show the relative mean severity ratings for all items. Practices are listed in ascending order of relative severity. Non-physical items such as grounding a child were rated as least severe, with severity ratings under two. Severity ratings for acts of psychological and physical discipline varied, with scores ranging from 2.02 (severely punishing) to 3.00 (abusive). Acts with mean ratings that were midway between severely punishing and abusive include spanking, ridiculing child and taking meals away. Certain items such as burning a child, or threatening with a weapon showed no variation, with all respondents rating these items as abusive. Effects of Age of the Child on Severity Ratings (2001 Practitioner Survey) To assess possible effects of age alone on severity ratings among our 2001 sample, ANOVAs (with Tukey post hoc analyses) were run for each of the ve discipline practices selected for further analysis. Age of the child affected the severity ratings of only one discipline practice. Specically, when asked about shaking a child, participants rated shaking at age 02 years was signicantly more severe than at age 611 (p < .05) and 1217 (< .01); shaking at age 35 was rated as signicantly more severe than age 1217 (p < .01) (results not shown).

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Effects of Frequency and Age on Severity Ratings (2001 Practitioner Survey) To examine the possible additional effects of frequency on severity ratings among child welfare professionals in 2001, ANOVAs (with Tukey post hoc analyses) were run to compare mean severity ratings by age group and by frequency level for each of the ve discipline practices chosen for analysis (Table 2). For most age groups (35, 611 and 1217), yelling or shouting at child was rated as signicantly more severe when done frequently as opposed to rarely (p < .05). In addition, participants rated yelling or shouting at child as signicantly more severe when done occasionally as opposed to rarely for the 611 and 1217 age groups (p < .05). For infants (02), frequency of yelling did not affect the severity ratings. For the 611 and 1217 age groups, participants rated embarrassing child in front of others as signicantly more severe if done frequently rather than rarely (p < .05). Participants also rated embarrassing child in front of others as more severe if done often in comparison to rarely (p < .05). For the 35 and 611 age groups, threatening to spank child was rated as more severe if done frequently when compared to rarely (p < .05). Threatening to spank child was also rated as significantly more severe when done frequently in relation to occasionally for the age range 611 (p < .05). Across all age groups, spanking child was rated as signicantly more severe if done frequently when compared to rarely (p < .05). Participants also rated spanking child as signicantly less severe when done occasionally as opposed to frequently for the 35 age group (p < .05). Rare spanking is rated approximately 2.00 (severely punishing) where as frequent spanking was considered abusive by most respondents. For the 35, and 1217 age groups, shaking child was rated as signicantly more severe when done frequently as opposed to rarely (p < .05). Table 2 lists all of the means for the signicant differences by age and frequency for these ve practices. Exploratory Investigation of the Effect of Historical Context: Comparing 1977 and 2001 Changes in Severity Ratings by Discipline Practice. To explore the possible effect of historical time period on the severity ratings of each discipline practice, the four age groups and four frequency groups were collapsed and one mean rating score was computed for

TABLE 2

Signicant Differences in Mean Severity Ratings, by Frequency and Age Groups, 2001 sample

Frequency Groups Rarely 1.81 1.65 1.73 1.50 1.69 2.63* 2.67** 2.56** 2.59** 611 611 1217 1217 2.11 2.11 2.00 2.00 Occasionally Often Frequently 2.38* 2.31* 2.31* 2.23** 2.23*

Discipline Practice by Age Group

S. D. WHITNEY, E. A. TAJIMA, T. I. HERRENKOHL, AND B. HUANG

Yelling or shouting at child, ages 35 Yelling or shouting at child, ages 611 Yelling or shouting at child, ages 611 Yelling or shouting at child, ages 1217 Yelling or shouting at child, ages 1217 Embarrassing child in front of others, ages Embarrassing child in front of others, ages Embarrassing child in front of others, ages Embarrassing child in front of others, ages

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TABLE 2 Continued

Frequency Groups Rarely 1.81 1.73 1.81 2.22 1.96 2.11 1.89 2.11 2.81 2.38 Occasionally Often Frequently 2.52** 2.41** 2.41* 2.81* 2.70** 2.70* 2.59** 2.63* 3.00* 2.81*

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Discipline Practice by Age Group

Threatening to spank or hit child, ages 35 Threatening to spank or hit child, ages 611 Threatening to spank or hit child, ages 611 Spanking child, ages 02 Spanking child, ages 35 Spanking child, ages 35 Spanking child, ages 611 Spanking child, ages 1217 Shaking child, ages 35 Shaking child, ages 1217

* Signicant at the .05 level. ** Signicant at the .01 level. Only significant differences are shown.

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each of the 28 items that were common to both versions of the survey. The original questionnaires from the 1977 sample were not archived, and only overall means and standard deviations for each item were available. In order to compare the two samples it was necessary to compute the standard deviations from the 1977 sample across the four age groups and four frequency levels. The following formula was used to compute the mean of the standard deviations and the shared variance between items ! k1 P 1 P P k P 1 v k x1 SDxi SD xj v xi 2 where k = the numk2
i1 j1

ber of standard deviations (SD) to be combined and v = variance. Using ANOVA, 12 of the 28 items were found to have signicantly different mean ratings (p < .05) in 2001 compared to 1977. The means, standard deviations, F scores and signicance levels for these 12 items are presented in Table 3. The means are consistently higher in the 2001 sample, indicating less acceptance of these practices. Changes in Severity Ratings by Age of the Child. We explored possible changes over time in the effect of age on severity ratings for the ve discipline practices focused on in this study: spanking child, shaking child, threatening to spank, yelling or shouting a child, and embarrassing child in front of others. As shown in Figure 1, compared to 1977, severity ratings in 2001 were signicantly higher for most, but not all of the age groups. Specically, the 2001 sample rated two of the ve items as signicantly more severe, across all age group: shaking child, and threatening to spank or hit child (p < .05). In 2001 yelling or shouting at child was rated higher for younger children only (p < .05). Compared to practitioner ratings in 1977, the acts of Embarrassing child in front of others and spanking child were rated as more severe in 2001 (p < .05) for ages 35, 611 and 1217. Changes in Severity Ratings by Discipline Practice, Age of the Child and Frequency Level. The effects of frequency and age on changes in severity ratings between 1977 and 2001 were also explored for the ve discipline practices: spanking child, shaking child, threatening to spank, yelling or shouting a child and embarrassing child in front of others. As shown in Table 4, results indicate that the 2001 sample rated the ve disciplinary acts as

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TABLE 3 Discipline Severity Ratings by Historical Time Period

2001 Discipline Practice Explaining to or reasoning with child Taking some privilege away from child Restricting or grounding child to the house Yelling or shouting at child Isolating child in a room for an hour or more Slapping childs hands or legs Ignoring child Threatening to spank or hit child Spanking child Embarrassing child in front of others Ridiculing or making fun of child Washing childs mouth out with soap Taking meals away Putting pepper in childs mouth Shaking child Threatening to send child away Pulling childs hair Slapping childs face Hitting child with a stick, paddle, or other hard object Locking child out of the house Mean 1.04 1.33 1.42 2.02 2.05 2.09 2.15 2.17 2.36 2.44 2.57 2.68 2.68 2.80 2.81 2.81 2.82 2.85 2.89 2.90 SD (.13) (.42) (.44) (.65) (.53) (.58) (.70) (.62) (.57) (.52) (.52) (.40) (.38) (.41) (.22) (.27) (.27) (.22) (.22) (.17)

1977 Mean 1.14 1.31 1.15 1.55 1.81 1.91 1.69 1.03 2.01 1.96 2.08 2.58 2.39 2.82 2.26 2.45 2.57 2.49 2.77 2.67 SD (.41) (.59) (.40) (.64) (.70) (.71) (.64) (.15) (.65) (.64) (.63) (.59) (.65) (.40) (.64) (.65) (.58) (.60) (.47) (.59) F n.s. n.s. 5.01* 6.65* n.s. n.s. 6.05* 77.17** 4.27* 8.69** 9.23** n.s. n.s. n.s. 17.02** 7.31** 4.11* 4.81* n.s. n.s.

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TABLE 3 Continued

2001 Discipline Practice Isolating child in a dark room or closet Biting child Hitting or paddling so as to bruise child Slapping or spanking so as to bruise child Biting so as to bruise child Hitting child with a strap, rope, or belt Burning child, for example, with a cigarette, hot coffee, or a stove Burning so as to leave burn marks on child
* Signicant at the .05 level. ** Signicant at the .01 level. n.s. = not signicant.

1977 Mean 2.58 2.86 2.94 2.98 2.95 2.87 2.98 SD F

Mean 2.91 2.97 2.97 2.98 2.98 2.99 3.00

SD (.23) (.13) (.07) (.07) (.05) (.17) (0)

(.63) 6.35* (.37) n.s. (.23) n.s. (.07) n.s. (.16) n.s. (.33) n.s. (.08) n.s.

3.00

(0)

3.00

(0)

n.s.

being signicantly more severe than did the 1977 sample within most of the frequency categories. Specically, yelling or shouting at child for the 02 age group was rated as more severe in 2001 across all frequency levels. For the other age groups, this discipline practice was rated as signicantly more severe in 2001 for most of the frequency levels, except for the weekly occurrences. Thus, in 1977, frequent yelling or shouting at child was regarded just as harshly as in 2001, except for infants. The item embarrassing child in front of others was consistently rated as more severe in 2001 compared to 1977, with one exception: in 1977, embarrassing an adolescent on a weekly basis was rated just as severely as in 2001. Interestingly, Threatening to spank or hit child was rated as being signicantly more severe in 2001 for all age groups and all frequency levels.

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Shaking child 3.1 2.9 Severity ratings 2.7 2.5 2.3 2.1 1.9 1.7 1.5 0 to 2 3 to 5 6 to 11 12 to 17 Age ranges 2.18 2.07 2.11 2001 1977 2.45 2.7 2.99 Severity ratings 2.92 2.74 2.58 2.5 2.3 2.1 1.9 1.7 1.5

Embarrassing child in front of other

2.47

2.46

2.44

2.37 2.15

2.14

2.12

1.69

2001 1977 3 to 5 6 to 11 12 to 17

0 to 2

Age ranges Spanking child 2.7 2.5 Severity ratings 2.52 2.31 2.19 2.1 1.9 1.7 1.5 1.87 1.86 1.92 2001 1977 0 to 2 3 to 5 6 to 11 12 to 17 2.37 2.24

Threatening to spank or hit child 2.6 2.4 2.2 2 1.8 1.6 1.4 1.2 1 0.8

Severity ratings

2.34 2.16 2.05 2.14

2.3

2001 1977 1.02 0 to 2 1.04 3 to 5 1.03 6 to 11 1.04 12 to 17

Age ranges Yelling or shouting at child 2.4 2.3 2.2 2.1 2 1.9 1.8 1.7 1.6 1.5 2.3

Age ranges

Severity ratings

2001 1977 2.06 1.92 1.82

1.58 0 to 2

1.56 3 to 5

1.54 6 to 11

1.5 12 to 17

Age ranges

FIGURE 1. Comparison of severity ratings in 2001 and 1977, based on age of child. Indicates signicant difference between samples, Indicates non-signicant difference between samples, 1 = neither severe nor abusive, 2 = severely punishing, 3 = abusive. Spanking a child was generally rated as signicantly more severe in 2001 across all age groups for lower frequency levels, but severity ratings for chronic spanking (i.e. weekly) remained stable over time. Severity ratings for the discipline practice shaking child were signicantly higher across all age groups and all frequency levels.

TABLE 4

Discipline Severity Ratings by Historical Time Period, Age Group and Frequency Level

Mean Severity Ratings 1977 Often 2.23 1.46 1.94 1.92 1.42 1.96 1.73 1.42 1.92 1.69 1.42 1.87 1.85 2.23 2.00 2.31 2.12 2.38 2.31 2.58 Frequently Occasionally Often 2001 Frequently F

Discipline Practice

Occasionally

Yelling or shouting at child, ages 02

1.35

Yelling or shouting at child, ages 35

1.29

Yelling or shouting at child, ages 611

1.29

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Yelling or shouting at child, ages 1217

1.21

19.13** 16.45** 10.03** 11.36** 12.09** n.s. 5.73* 8.54** n.s. 7.96** n.s. n.s.

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TABLE 4 Continued

Mean Severity Ratings 1977 Often 2.41 1.70 1.80 2.41 2.12 2.33 2.37 2.12 2.29 2.33 2.17 2.33 2.22 1.04 1.00 2.41 2.59 2.56 2.59 2.63 2.67 2.63 2.63 2.63 2.63 Frequently Occasionally Often 2001 Frequently F

Discipline Practice

Occasionally

1.57

1.96

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1.95

1.96

Embarrassing child in front of others, ages 02 Embarrassing child in front of others, ages 35 Embarrassing child in front of others, ages 611 Embarrassing child in front of others, ages 1217 Threatening to spank or hit child, ages 02

1.02

19.31** 29.53** 23.82** 6.53* 10.65** 4.03* 5.49* 10.65** 6.87* 4.55* 7.04* n.s. 53.02** 87.37** 147.80**

Threatening to spank or hit child, ages 35 1.04 1.04 1.81 1.00 1.04 1.96 1.00 1.04 2.33 2.10 2.54 2.11 1.67 2.46 2.11 1.67 2.33 2.22 1.79 2.33 2.52 2.63 2.37 2.59 2.48 2.70 2.70 2.81 2.44 2.22 2.41 2.22 2.52 2.30

1.04

2.00

Threatening to spank or hit child, ages 611

1.04

1.08

Threatening to spank or hit child, ages 1217 Spanking child, ages 02

1.94

Spanking child, ages 35

1.5

Spanking child, ages 611

1.58

S. D. WHITNEY, E. A. TAJIMA, T. I. HERRENKOHL, AND B. HUANG

Spanking child, ages 1217

1.62

34.06** 78.02** 99.29** 21.37** 87.01** 87.37** 21.17** 72.74** 78.09** n.s. 6.82* n.s. 8.65** 18.64** n.s. 7.07* 14.17** n.s. 8.40** 17.64** n.s.

335

TABLE 4 Continued

336

Mean Severity Ratings 1977 Often 3.00 2.50 2.65 2.93 2.25 2.54 2.63 2.04 2.50 2.46 2.04 2.50 2.65 2.81 2.85 2.89 2.96 3.00 3.00 3.00 Frequently Occasionally Often Frequently 2001 F

Discipline Practice

Occasionally

Shaking child, ages 02

2.29

Shaking child, ages 35

1.75

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Shaking child, ages 611

1.67

Shaking child, ages 1217

1.79

20.08** 15.63** 9.22** 60.25** 27.41** 16.42** 32.85** 39.36** 10.92** 13.26** 17.43** 5.89*

* Signicant at the .05 level. ** Signicant at the .01 level. n.s. = not signicant.

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In 2001, shaking an infant was rated as clearly abusive (M = 3.00) by all respondents, even at low frequency levels; in contrast, in 1977, shaking an infant occasionally (411 times a year) was rated as sub-abusive (M = 2.29).

Discussion The purpose of this study was to examine variation in child welfare practitioner ratings of the severity of 39 discipline practices based on the type of act, the age of the child when the act occurred and the frequency of the act. The results from the 2001 survey were used to externally validate measures of maltreatment for our longitudinal study on the developmental effects of child abuse. Based on work by Straus, Hamby, Finkelhor, Moore, and Ranyan (1998), we had identied four key constructs: very severe physical maltreatment; severe physical discipline; emotional maltreatment; and nonviolent discipline. Following our analyses of current practitioner ratings, several items were dropped and other items were added. For example, the severity rating for the item threatening to kill child, (mean 3.0) was incongruent with other items in our emotional maltreatment construct, suggesting the need for a separate construct: very severe emotional maltreatment. Based on practitioner ratings, items that we added to our original measure of emotional maltreatment included ignoring child and ridiculing or making fun of child. Informed by our ndings, we also created a new construct, physical endangerment. This construct consists of the items; isolating child in a dark room, locking child out of the house, and taking meals away from child. Using data (2001) from child welfare workers, the present study examined the effects of age of the child and frequency on severity ratings for ve discipline practices (spanking the child, shaking the child, threatening to spank, yelling or shouting at the child, and embarrassing the child in front of others). Among current practitioners, age of the child only affected severity ratings of one discipline practice: shaking child. Specically, the younger the child, the more severe the rating (especially 02 years). This nding indicates that current practitioners are uniformly alert to the seriousness of shaking infants and young childrena nding that was expected, but reassuring nonetheless. The hypothesis that the frequency of acts would affect severity ratings was supported in that respondents

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tended to distinguish between rare occurrences and chronic practices. For example, if done rarely, spanking was rated as severely punishing (mean = 1.892.22) however frequent spanking was perceived as abusive by many respondents (mean = 2.59 to 2.81). It appears that practitioners in our 2001 sample took a contextual perspective (Larzelere, Baumrind, & Polite, 1998) on parental spanking, distinguishing between abusive and non-abusive spanking rather than viewing spanking as inherently abusive. Given ongoing debate over the severity and impact of spanking (e.g., Baumrind, Larzelere, & Cowan, 2002; Gershoff, 2002) it is useful to examine perceptions of public child welfare workers, as these views arguably drive practice and shape policy. Given that we sought to compare recent ratings to those obtained in 1977, we designed the 2001 survey to parallel the earlier version. Feedback from respondents in 2001 indicated that they found certain items to be too vague and wished there had been more information about the situational context to help them better assess severity. Other participants noted that having only three possible ratings of severity was too conning and indicated that a larger range would have allowed them to rate disciplinary acts with greater condence. These concerns suggest that respondents were left to interpret aspects of context and intention when rating the items, which may have led to greater variance than would be expected had these elements been specied in the questionnaire. Interestingly, these respondent concerns also point to a developmental advance in practice, namely that workers appear to operate from a contextual perspective in evaluating incidents and allegations of abuse. To adequately assess risk and to design prevention and intervention, practitioners depend upon and need relevant contextual information. Denitions of child maltreatment are uid constructions, alternately shaped by factors such as situational contexts (e.g., age of child and/ or perpetrator, intent of the act), chronicity of the occurrence, historical context, as well as the cultural or normative context. Our results underscore the complexity involved in dening and measuring child maltreatment and highlight the importance of continued investigation into this topic. We hypothesized that practitioner severity ratings of parental discipline practices would vary with the type of act, age of the child, frequency of occurrence, and historical context; our results support these hypotheses. Across both time periods, several items

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were rated as clearly abusive (e.g. burning so as to leave marks) or clearly non-abusive (e.g., explaining to or reasoning with child). However, certain items that were rated as non-abusive or sub-abusive in 1977 were identied as signicantly more severe in 2001. For example, shaking an infant was rated signicantly higher by current practitioners (mean 3.0) compared to professionals surveyed in 1977. Further, shaking an infant was perceived as clearly abusive in 2001, regardless of the frequency of the act, whereas in 1977, if done only occasionally, shaking an infant was rated as subabusive. This nding also suggests developmental growth in practitioner knowledge, pointing to increased awareness of and concern about shaken baby syndrome, a problem that has received greater media and professional attention over the past decade. Similarly, emotionally harmful acts such as embarrassing child in front of others were rated as signicantly more severe by respondents in the 2001 sample, suggesting increased concern for practices that may be psychologically damaging. In general, discipline practices were rated more severely in 2001 compared with the earlier sample, suggesting a possible change in norms over time, a nding consistent with Straus and Mathur (1996). The suggestion of changes in norms over the past 25 years underscores the need to continually revisit the question of how to dene and operationalize child maltreatment. While there was convergence across time in behaviors considered clearly abusive or clearly non-abusive, several commonly used discipline acts such as spanking and verbal discipline were rated as more severe in 2001 than they were in 1977. For research to reect current practitioner perceptions of what constitutes child maltreatment, investigation into severity ratings should be conducted regularly. Despite its limitations, this study adds to the literature on dening child maltreatment. Prior research has identied differences in severity ratings comparing professionals and the general population (Giovannoni & Becerra, 1979), child welfare professionals and lay persons, and between child protective service caseworkers and investigators (Rose & Meezan, 1996). Others have examined factors related to the situational context such as the caregivers emotional state preceding the act (Holden, Coleman, & Schmidt, 1995) or the nature of the childs transgression (Flynn, 1998). Explorations of the normative or cultural context have compared prevalence and acceptability by race (Flynn, 1998; Smith & Brooks-Gunn, 1997), social class

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(Erlanger, 1974), religion and ideology (Day, Peterson, & McCracken, 1998), historical time period (Straus & Mathur, 1996), acculturation level of parents (Song, 1986) and cultural narratives regarding discipline (Mosby, Rawls, Meehan, Mays, & Pettinari, 1999). Increased research in this direction will help to offer a more nuanced understanding of child maltreatment and its denition. The present study reports on severity ratings among a sample of current child welfare practitioners and points to the importance of contextualized denitions of child maltreatment. Our work also suggests the need for continued research on changes in severity ratings across historical time periods. Denitions of child maltreatment are not static. Practitioners, especially those in public child welfare are an important resource for other family practitioners, applied researchers and child and family policy makers; it is important to gauge their current perceptions and enable these to inform practice, research and policy interventions.

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