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Definition and criteria for guardian support about child sexual abuse

Definition and criteria for guardian support about child sexual abuse What are the criteria for adequate guardian support and who sets these criteria? There are probably two primary groups—child protective services and child sexual abuse researchers—that have contributed to establishing criteria for adequate guardian support. Child protective services’ interest in establishing criteria for guardian support is because they must assess whether nonoffending guardians can provide adequate support for the child. While the actual policies vary, child protective services workers typically consider whether nonoffending guardians believe the child’s disclosure, whether they are capable of keeping the offender away from the child, and whether they can provide a consistent protective and supportive environment for the victimized child. Researchers measuring guardian support also tend to assess one or more of these indicators, although some also consider whether nonoffending guardians are capable of utilizing professional services for themselves or their children (Bolen, 2000b). These criteria, in turn, have become the operationalized definition for guardian support. One important implication of the decision of most researchers to utilize the criteria for guardian support employed by child protective services is that the definition of guardian support in the empirical literature is largely a system-defined construct.3 This is an important point because it suggests that most child sexual abuse researchers do not question the definition itself, but concur that guardian support should be defined based upon how child protective services assesses it. The problem with this approach, however, is that the construct of guardian support has not been treated to the same rigorous scrutiny as other constructs. “Methodology,” a series of steps are necessary to ensure the validity of the construct under question. Issues to be considered are both the theoretical and the operationalized definitions of the construct and whether the construct can be validly and reliably measured across populations. None of these issues have been addressed in the known professional literature on guardian support; yet these are the very questions that are critical to the development of valid measures. Because researchers have not established validity for the construct of guardian support, some basic issues have never been debated. The first and most basic question is whether guardian support should be a system-defined construct. In other words, should the needs of child protective services drive the definition of guardian support? While it is clear that child protective services must assess nonoffending guardians within the current policies, it is not at all clear that what is being captured is guardian support. Thus, a fundamental question is: What is guardian support? How can it be conceptualized so that it captures the range of behaviors and emotions that nonoffending guardians experience after the disclosure of their child’s sexual abuse? To consider this question requires an analysis of how guardian support is currently conceptualized. Most studies currently conceptualize guardian support categorically, dividing nonoffending guardians into supportive, ambivalent, and unsupportive categories (Bolen, 2000b). This type of conceptualization matches the needs of child protective services workers, who are mandated to determine whether nonoffending guardians are supportive enough to retain custody of their children. Thus, it is not surprising that Everson et al. (1989) found that guardians deemed supportive were most likely to retain custody of their children. Children were most often removed and placed in a relative’s home when guardians were scored as ambivalent in support and were most often placed in foster care when guardians were scored as unsupportive. An important implication of these findings is that an ambivalent response appears to have negative ramifications, warranting removal of the child. Thus, even though an ambivalent response would seem to indicate neither a clearly supportive nor unsupportive stance, it is treated as an unsupportive stance necessitating removal by child protective services. This conceptualization of ambivalence as a negative response is also reflected in a study of guardian support by Leifer et al. (1993), who considered nonoffending guardians unsupportive if they did not score optimally on all three indicators of support. Therefore, nonoffending guardians with a total score of +3 or +4 on a scale of -5 to +5 could be considered unsupportive. In this study, any ambivalence or hesitation was construed negatively.

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