An Ethnographic Case Study Approach to Studying the Process of Child Abuse Investigation in the United Kingdom

Jon Prosser

ABSTRACT: This article is concerned with methodological issues related to studies into investigative practices following accusations of child abuse. Part One describes an ethnographic case study approach adopted by a study conducted in the UK and explores how research design was in part molded by the circumstances and context in which the study took place. Part Two takes a broader perspective and identifies some of the problems and benefits which may ensue as a result of adopting a qualitative approach. It is apparent that adopting a qualitative strategy, particularly an ethnographic one, is problematic. However, whilst ethnographic case study work brings with it significant methodological problems it offers valuable insights into the process of child abuse investigation carried out by protection agencies.

Part One

Prosser and Lewis (1992) conducted a study between 1989 and 1991. They considered 30 cases of families who claimed to have been wrongly accused of child abuse. The central aim of the study was not to establish the guilt or otherwise in each case but to identify families' perceptions (children, mothers, fathers, and grandparents) of the process of child abuse investigation. What is presented here is not a prescriptive or "ideal" model of how such a study should be conducted, but an attempt to record one approach. This approach reflects some of the difficulties, uncertainties and mistakes made by a research team who used a sociological framework in studying how accusations of child abuse were investigated.

Background

The beginnings of the study had a profound effect on the way in which it was conducted. The work came about not out of free-standing academic interest, but because a client organization provided the financial resources and focus. The client organization "PAIN" (Parents Against Injustice) is a British organization which provides support for parents and children in cases where parents are accused of child abuse which they refute. PAIN is recognized as a group which supports and fights for the rights of such families. They commissioned our research group (within an independent academic institution) to carry out a study into the process of child abuse investigation in the UK. Whilst the client organization provided access to a large sample of cases which later formed a data base for the study, it was agreed that the project would be conducted without interference by the client and that the final report was to be based on findings grounded in the data.

Research Design

Given that the focus of the study was to be the process of child abuse investigation which reflected families' perceptions, a qualitative approach appeared most befitting. A case study strategy, with its emphasis on the examination of one setting, was considered appropriate since it placed action and events in context. In order to take account of the issue of uniqueness, to deepen understanding of the phenomena under study, and to make findings more predisposed to theory generation and generalization (Miles & Huberman, 1986), a multi-site case study approach was adopted. This enabled issues emerging from one case to be compared and contrasted with issues from other cases. It was hoped that this would enhance not only the validity of findings and the scope of constructs developed, but also contribute to the robustness of the understandings established.

Consideration was initially given to a research design which would explore the multiple perspectives of all participants and compare families' views with those of investigators, for example social workers, police, and doctors. The notion of adopting a participant-observer role and collecting first-hand data from "new" cases where the family claimed innocence was appealing.

Early attempts to establish agreement on a research design with bodies charged with investigating cases of possible child abuse in order to gain access to the investigators' world proved futile. Instead, we decided to take a sample of PAIN's cases which had reached a conclusion and to "backward map," drawing on the memories of both families and investigators. Again this proved fruitless. The research team had felt ethically bound to mention to the investigating bodies that the sponsoring organization was PAIN and this effectively closed many doors. Barred access is not a new phenomena to those in sociological research who wish to study powerful organizations as Taylor (1989) points out:

You will find many ethnographic studies of relatively powerless groups, such as school-children, the sick and handicapped, gays or dope smokers, but very few, if any, of powerful groups such as leading politicians, senior civil servants or military chiefs. This is not because sociologists are not interested in power and how it is used. They are. It is simply because sociologists (and other potential observers) are not normally granted access to centers of power. The only knowledge we have of what goes on in some powerful groups comes when one of the participants makes disclosures and even then, in the UK at least, there are problems in getting such revelations published. The problem of access illustrates that what can be achieved through participant observation is strictly limited (pp. 66-67).

An "ideal" ethnographic approach therefore was not a plausible option. Although there was consolation in the possibility that a participant-observation role could have eroded the "natural" behavior of families and investigators, a third, less satisfactory design, was chosen out of necessity rather than preference. It was decided to consider cases from PAIN files and to accept the limitations that would occur as a result of focusing down on families' perceptions without recourse to comparison of alternative, possibly conflicting interpretation of events provided by investigators.

Because of limited time and resources, and knowing that investigation into cases may take years to complete, only cases that had reached a conclusion were included in the sample. This meant that much of the data were based on an historical perspective, i.e. families looking back at their cases.

There were at least two basic problems to consider. Firstly, because families had sought PAIN's support, it was probable that they had received a strongly negative experience of the investigative process (accepting there are few positive experiences). This meant that, not only was the sample to a degree self-selecting, but also that it was biased in favor of those families with strongly negative views. Secondly, there was a possibility that families' perceptions would be a reflection of memories, distorted as a result of their negative experiences. These factors, as far as possible, were taken into account and perceptions were compared and contrasted by method, researcher, and source triangulation (Denzin, 1970). This approach was taken to establish a degree of internal validity within cases and external validity across cases.

Figure 1 represents a model of the research design illustrating the various key stages. The data were collected by three researchers — one female (R1) and two male (R2 and R3) — from a sample of 30 cases. A modified analytic induction strategy was used (McCall & Simmons, 1969) to collect and analyze data, develop an understanding of the process of child abuse investigation, and test that understanding rigorously.

In order to achieve this there was a need, particularly during the initial "open" phase, to standardize the team's recording of data. The team recorded day-to-day activities of participants (and researchers) in a field diary. The data were organized under 4 subheadings: (1) Contextual information, which provided information about participants, sites, and settings; (2) Analytic Memos, in which a record of systematic thinking about the data were made. Such memos contained (a) new concepts which emerged, (b) emergent hypotheses which required testing, and (c) further data collection required in the future in order to "ground" the emergent concepts more fully; (3) A Record of Data, where information from participant observation of situations, events, interactions, activities, including descriptions and quotations, were recorded; (4) Methodological notes, which identified the team's concerns with regards processes and procedures associated with the collection of data in the field.

This approach to the recording of data not only helped individual field workers to identify how working hypotheses emerged from the data and to check their work for validity and reliability, but enabled co-workers to compare, contrast, and cross-check their work and the work of others in the team. It was not intended that a common method of organizing data be used by the research team (for example using predetermined categories). Although such an approach may have ensured a degree of reliability across the team, it may have been at the cost of premature coding and inflexibility.

It can be seen in Figure 1 that in stage one, the "open" phase, each researcher collected data and identified significant issues and explanations for the cases they had studied. During the second stage, emergent findings from the research team were compared and contrasted, in order to identify common, interesting, or unusual features. In stage three, the team re-entered the field and, by focusing on key issues established earlier in the study and reflecting on data from further cases, interpretations were refined or reformulated.

Although the above process is common in qualitative research, one aspect of the process was more unusual and possibly controversial. It is normal, prior to conducting any research, to review the literature. In this study this was not done. The research team had not been involved in child abuse research prior to this project (child welfare and education were their forte). Rather than consider this a disadvantage the team decided it was advantageous. By not reviewing the literature and thus retaining the "virgin" state of their knowledge, the team hoped that assumptions, presumptions, and prejudices which may accompany field workers into the field would be limited, if not avoided. This did mean that some findings which surprised us were commonplace to experienced researchers in this area.

It was only during the second stage, when emergent substantive issues were established, that the search for the insights from other studies began. On reflection, whilst there were some advantages of this approach, this may have been a mistake. The study came up with new concepts such as "system abuse," but other features might have been identified earlier and explored in greater depth, if sensitizing issues had been established by reviewing the literature prior to entering the field.

The Sample

Sampling, as with the research design for this study, was problematic. In the UK a difficulty for researchers studying child abuse is identifying a population from which a sample may be drawn. This task is particularly difficult for those working in a statistical paradigm or focusing on families who have been wrongly accused, since records have not been kept by an impartial or a government agency. No attempt is made to differentiate between those who are guilty and those who are innocent. There is no equivalent of the USA's National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect and hence no reliable figures that are comparable to those given by Besharov (1986, 1988).

PAIN has on file over 2,000 cases of families who claim to have been wrongly accused of child abuse. A sample of 40 cases were selected from the files based on the following criteria:

1. A diversity of the nature of child abuse accusations involved.

2. A geographical dispersion of cases.

3. A variety of circumstances surrounding the original accusations.

4. Cases which included a variety of inquiry processes.

The criteria were chosen to ensure that, although the sample was to some extent self-selecting being drawn only from families who had made contact with PAIN, all possible steps were taken to incorporate a degree of representativeness into the inquiry. Of the 40 cases from PAIN, 30 were finally selected by the research team to form the sample. The sample included accusations of physical and sexual abuse and a small number accused of ritual and satanic abuse, neglect, and emotional abuse. In addition 5 cases were considered which were external to the PAIN sample. We found little to distinguish between these cases and those provided by PAIN. The sample did not contain cases from places such as Cleveland, Rochdale, or Orkney that were infamous and subject to extensive national media coverage and where repetitive interviewing may have given rise to bias.

In 29 of the 30 cases the accused had been investigated and cases either dropped or had gone to court where a "not guilty" or "not proven" verdict was the outcome. In one case the accused had received a jail sentence yet claimed to have been falsely accused. Because the research team was not in the position to establish guilt or innocence of families and it was possible that some guilty parties were on PAIN files, the study can only claim to reflect the perspectives of families who claim to have been wrongly accused.

Access

Access to families and individuals within families was less of a problem than anticipated. Initially, contact was made by letter explaining that the study was supported by PAIN and outlining its aims. Family members were reticent in the beginning. On a number of occasions the scampering of feet could be heard when researchers first knocked on the door. We were told the children habitually ran and hid when strange or "official" looking people arrived. Access to children was often only gained once parents, the gatekeepers to much of the data, were confident that we could be trusted. Time was taken to socialize with families to gain acceptance and an understanding of contextual features. The ability to develop relationships quickly is an important skill for the case study worker as Nisbet and Watt (1982) point out:

In case study you as a researcher have the luxury and the dilemma of being your own "chief instrument." Ultimately the success or failure of your efforts will depend on your ability to develop good personal relationships (p. 20).

Data Collection Techniques

Data were collected mainly through interviews. The interviews were unstructured during the first meeting with a family and semi-structured on later occasions. In addition to tape recordings, field notes were made. These included descriptions of physical settings and activities during the meetings. Interviews were carried out with 90 adults of which 47 were female and 43 male. In addition, 39 children/young people were interviewed of which 26 were female and 13 male and whose ages ranged from 7 years to 19 years. The children/young people were mostly interviewed individually but occasionally with one or both parents or with siblings present (the interviewer decided the groupings in all but one case).

Conducting interviews was time consuming and often traumatic. It was common for families to be distant at first, but later becoming more confident and bursting forth with their story. The interviewer would make notes. After a period of two to three hours when the story was told, a session followed during which issues arising were checked for meanings and interpretations.

The research team members were concerned that probing was painful for the families and would reawaken past pain. We could not, and did not, take the role of counselors. But, although families did find reliving their experiences an emotional and tearful occasion, the vast majority stated that we had played a positive role in exorcising the trauma. Indeed, a phrase commonly used by family members was, "It's the first time I/we have been really listened to." However, the issue the team never resolved was whether the study was worth reawakening memories and pain that the families had experienced.

A second source of data were documents. A common feature of cases was the retention of all documents. When asked if they possessed documents, families invariably opened cupboards full of letters, official and unofficial documents, notebooks, and articles. In addition to this wealth of evidence, useful in terms of triangulating data and providing alternative interpretations, were diaries. Personal diaries provided valuable contemporaneous information of thoughts, beliefs, activities, dates, and times. Diaries were particularly useful in providing data against which a family's present perceptions could be compared.

The documents retained by the families were a very important source of data. Andrew (1985) makes an important point with regard to "complete" records:

Documents have differential survival rates and those which do survive do not always provide all the information required . . . The answers to a great many questions are simply not available, since the necessary records either never existed or failed to survive (p. 156).

The team members were assured by 95% of families that the documents they possessed were complete records and that none had been thrown away. Indeed, the obsessive collection and storage of all documents that came into their possession may be an indication of the trauma experienced by them.

Certain groups of documents were especially important. Some validated statements made during interviews whilst others refuted assertions. Documents in the form of affidavits from all parties were particularly significant. They represented alternative interpretations of events and were the "voices" of social workers, doctors, police, child psychologists, and health visitors. Although this study focused on the families' perspectives, the documents offered an insight of significant other perspectives, thus to a small degree establishing a more balanced picture of the process of investigation of child abuse.

So far the emphasis has been on the design and application of an ethnographic approach to one particular study. It is appropriate at this point to consider some of the underlying problems and potential benefits of adopting a similar strategy to the study of child abuse accusations. In the next section I explore what sort of methodological problems need to be taken into account and what sorts of research questions are appropriate when taking an ethnographic stance. A pertinent starting prior to exploring these issues is to understand something of the research traditions used by researchers in the UK to the study of child abuse.

Part Two

Researchers have a choice of adopting (singularly or in combination) a quantitative or qualitative approach. In the UK, perhaps for historical reasons, the dominant researchers in the study of child abuse have been from the psychological or medical professions. Consequently, the dominant research tradition is quantitative. As a result, emphasis has been placed on objectivity and causality rather than notions of subjectivity and interpretation. Child abuse issues are interpreted as technical problems rather than problems of meanings. Hence, while there is a strong theoretical tradition based on a quantitative approach which informs and underpins some areas of research into child abuse, there is a paucity of studies which explore social processes and structures. The limited sociological studies carried out in the UK were mainly aimed at identifying social factors that contribute to child abuse. Gains in the quality of investigation of child abuse have come mainly from psychology, medicine, and, more recently, law. Sociology, and particularly interpretive sociology, can play an important part too. The following two sections explore methodological issues arising out of insights provided by the study outlined in Part One, which require consideration if case study work is to play a significant part in the study of child abuse accusations.

Problems Resulting from the Adoption of an Ethnographic Stance

Ethnography is concerned with comprehending the culture of groups of people and places emphasis on understanding that culture from the participant's perspective. The goal of ethnography, according to Malinowski (1922, p. 25), is "to grasp the native point of view, his reaction to his life, to realize his vision of his world." In order to obtain this sort of data, field work is required. The necessity of "going and seeing" is at the core of the problems of conducting qualitative research into accusations of child abuse. The main problems are:

Fieldwork is very expensive. Funding for social research is very limited in the UK. Collecting and analyzing data, particularly interview data, is time consuming and therefore costly. Hence, only a small number of qualitative research studies are conducted annually.

Access. The main investigating agencies — police, social workers, doctors — are powerful groups and consequently it is difficult to gain access for field workers who wish to adopt a participant-observation role. The notion of multiple reality is important to ethnography and this feature is undermined if access is limited.

Participant-observation may influence the quality of the data. It is desirable to have access to all parties during an investigation. This would be a research design to which ethnography aspires. However, participants may act in an unnatural or guarded fashion, altering the naturalism so important to field work. Given that child abuse is taboo in many cultures and that social workers in the UK have been castigated by the media on many occasions, both the accused and the prime investigators may be sensitive to outsiders observing their actions.

Identifying a sample. Identifying a population from which to sample is problematic due to limited and undifferentiated statistical data available in the UK. This may not be a problem in some other developed countries.

The collection of data from ethnic groups. Given the significance ethnography attaches to obtaining the perspective of those within a cultural group, interviewing is best done by those belonging to that ethnic group. In addition, different cultures, and therefore different ethnic minority groups, may hold alternative and possibly contrasting viewpoints to the norm of society as to what constitutes child abuse. These factors need to be taken into account.

The objectivity of field workers may be impaired. Participant-observation requires a dual personality. There is a need to empathize with participants in order to acquire their confidence and gain access to their world. There is also a need to remain detached and objective. Quantitative researchers have instruments by which they obtain data and are, to a degree, afforded the luxury of detachment. In qualitative studies the field worker is the instrument. Consequently, field workers, like those who investigate child abuse accusations, whether they believe the accusation is true ( and therefore may feel anger) or false (and may therefore feel compassion), find difficulty in remaining nonpartisan. In the study described in Part One, the potential for over-rapport was high.

If post case research is conducted, additional problems are apparent:

An ethical dilemma. Interviewing may re-awaken trauma in families. Is the study sufficiently important to justify such intrusion?

Participants' views are based on memory. Life histories, which rely on memory and memorabilia, are found in the form of biographies of North American Indian chiefs collected by anthropologists around the turn of the century. Similarly sociologists, for example Thomas and Znaniecki's (1927) study of Polish immigrants to the United States, have employed a life history approach. Hence the use of memory to provide data is not new to interpretive sociology. However, interviews conducted when a case has been completed may reflect memories of events and not actual events or participants' perception at the time. Berger (1966) makes the point that we go on interpreting and reinterpreting our own life:

As we remember the past, we reconstruct it in accordance with our present ideas of what is important and what is not . . . This means that common-sense is quite wrong in thinking that the past is fixed, immutable, invariable, as against the ever-changing flux of the present. On the contrary, at least within our own consciousness, the past is malleable and flexible, constantly changing as our recollection reinterprets and re-explains what has happened (pp. 70-71).

This suggests that access to interpretation of the past may lie in the domain of the psychologist or psychiatrist rather than the ethnographer. Campbell (1992), a forensic psychologist, for example, differentiates between "reproductive" and "reconstructive" memory and identifies various influences which may lead to memory distortion.

Interviewing children. It is clear that children go through considerable trauma as a result of their experiences and pressure from a variety of sources. Gaining valid and reliable data from children is difficult in such circumstances. Is the interviewer gaining the child's perspective, a social worker's, a psychiatrist's, a parent's, or a combination or permutation of these perspectives? Untangling the web is problematic.

The Benefits Resulting from Adopting an Ethnographic Stance

Since qualitative research asks different sorts of questions compared to those posed by quantitative research, it should be seen that the two methodologies are complementary and that both are capable of contributing to our understanding of child abuse investigations. Qualitative research, especially an ethnographic framework, could be used to explore child abuse as a social definition or social construction, to add to our knowledge of what constitutes proper investigative procedure, and to aid in our understanding of why present knowledge about good investigative procedure is not put into practice. It is the latter point — the gap between rhetoric and reality — that ethnography has the capacity to explore and explain. What do investigators really do? How do they actually collect, record, and interpret evidence? These are important questions which need answers if the quality of child abuse investigation is to be improved. In order to convey something of the potential of ethnography, some of these questions are explored using exemplars from the study described in Part One.

What counts as "normal" and "natural"? A common feature of cases in the study was the problematic nature of "normality" and "natural" occurrences. The data suggest that investigators may apply taken-for-granted assumptions, often based on ideological stances, as to what counts as "good" parenting, an "appropriate" family setting, "normal" sexual activity of children, and an "appropriate" reaction of a parent accused of abuse (fathers in the study believed that displaying anger or losing their temper confirmed guilt in agency eyes, as did being cooperative and friendly). Establishing what constitutes societal norms, behavioral norms, and what occurs as a natural (for example medical conditions) disorder rather than an as indicator of abuse, are important if investigative procedure is to be improved. Whilst an understanding of what counts as normal and natural is being more fully developed by other disciplines, ethnographers and other field workers can establish how present knowledge is being applied.

Are there patterns to circumstances which lead to possibly false accusations? Evidence from the United States (Wakefield & Underwager, 1994) suggests that substantial numbers of accusations are false. Since false accusations draw resources away from catching those who do abuse, awareness and understanding of circumstances which may lead to false accusations is vital.

The study found common patterns which were a prelude to investigations and also the context of possibly false accusations. The prelude to investigations were, for example, misrepresentation or misinterpretation, usually by teachers or doctors, of something said, usually by children, or of circumstances, behavior, or apparent symptoms. The context to possibly unfounded accusations were reports emanating from rebellious adolescents, marital disputes and custody disagreements, and reports from neighbors or past employers where bad blood existed. It would be possible (but difficult in the UK) to compare the prelude and context of false accusations with those cases where guilt was established, thus sensitizing investigators to possible indicators of nonabusing parents.

What for investigators constitutes evidence and how is evidence interpreted? Findings from the study suggest that investigators may have placed too much store on an intuitive approach. A common feature, described by 23 of the 30 families (76%), was the emphasis placed by investigators on indicators, risk factors, and stereotypes, which are said to correspond or correlate with potential abusers of children or to be typical signs of children who have been abused. The data suggest that investigators did not recognize the tentative nature of these. In two cases, for example, evidence points to stereotypes being inappropriately applied since, as far as the research team was aware, there are no known links between child abusers and people who have tattoos or who wear white socks (both stereotypes were applied to the accused in court documents whose sources were the investigating agency).

The concept of risk factors, claim parents, was also inappropriately applied. The literature suggests that the presence of a stepfather in the household statistically increases the risk of abuse. Parents claimed that investigators perceived the presence of a stepfather not as an issue of correlation but as a causal factor (correlation is not causation). Hence, stepfathers in the sample often commented, "They (social workers) thought I was guilty the moment they knew I was a stepfather." The possibility that appropriate knowledge that is inappropriately applied may be a common feature of poor investigative practice is therefore of considerable concern.

Who plays a major role in an investigation? A number of cases were of special interest because families claimed an individual was pivotal in influencing their case. Typical of such cases were statements like, "a dogmatic pediatrician caused us no end of problems," or "it was the third social worker who made the difference and turned our case around." One group of key players which families perceived as causing difficulties were expert witnesses. Sometimes the investigative process compounded the problem. In one case, where a child psychologist was told by social workers that they had strong evidence to suspect a father had abused his daughter, the psychologist confirmed their belief. Yet a second child psychologist in the case, who specifically asked not to be given prior knowledge, came to the different and (following further investigation) more accurate conclusion that the child's mother had schooled the child to make an accusation (a custody case).

Some parents believed that for personal or financial reasons doctors preferred not to become involved in disputed cases, especially where court proceedings are involved and they may be asked to give evidence. Finally, some parents in the sample claimed that Magistrates (judges) placed great emphasis on expert medical witnesses and that the two "sides" sought to gain supremacy by obtaining the most "expert" expert witness. Whilst it may be that expert witnesses provide insight into technical issues concerned with child abuse, their role, often pivotal, is problematic when viewed against a backdrop of investigative process.

What are typical holistic features of investigations? Many studies focus in depth on particular aspects of child abuse investigations and few consider summative or longitudinal patterns that permeate the investigative process. The strengths of case study work include the ability to consider complete cases for significant patterns and flexibility, whereby the researcher may focus on unexpected or unexplained features in the data. In the study, for example, many families referred to abuses by "the system." Initially it was considered that they were using the term to describe the faceless quality of the various groups that formed the child protection agencies ("the system" is a typical English colloquial statement). When asked to explain the meaning of this term, many families described feelings of powerlessness and impotence and most were able to articulate a clear set of impressions for which the umbrella term "system abuse syndrome" was appropriate. The nature of the evidence being used in proceedings and the processes by which it was acquired, interpreted, and used, appeared to the parents to be part of a steam-roller effect in which they were helpless and unheard victims.

Clearly, this is not the place to reflect fully on the problems and benefits resulting from adopting an ethnographic stance. Part Two has identified some problems and benefits but these are merely indicative of the sorts of issues arising out of embracing a qualitative approach.

Summary

This article has considered methodological issues related to studies into the investigative practices following accusations of child abuse. Part One described an ethnographic case study approach of a study in the UK and outlined some of the decisions and difficulties which arose during the inquiry. Part Two considered some of the problems and benefits which may accrue as a result of adopting an ethnographic stance.

The work of child protection agencies in the UK has undergone major changes in the last decade. The knowledge, much of which was generated in the United States, which underpins our understanding of what constitutes "good" investigative practice, has increased considerably over the same period. However, given recent UK experience, it may be that what is "known" about child abuse investigation is poorly or inappropriately applied by some investigators. Qualitative research has the capacity to enhance our understanding of this problem — the gap between rhetoric and actuality — and other substantive issues.

Child protection agencies in the UK who are charged with investigating cases of possible child abuse have been urged to act more forcefully by the media to protect children and, almost in the same breath, castigated for being over-zealous. The central aim of agencies and society at large is to develop investigative skills which enable children to be protected without being over-intrusive or damaging innocent families against whom false accusations are made. Quantitative and qualitative research, despite adopting different ontological and epistemological assumptions, can offer differing but equally valid insights into investigating accusations of child abuse.

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