Legal and Social Issues Research Lab

Identifying child abuse (brief summary)


Alexis Kennedy defended her doctoral dissertation at the University of British Columbia on June 26, 2003. Below is a very brief summary of that research. A poster version of this information can also be seen by clicking on the APLS 2004 link above.

Identifying child abuse: A structural equation modeling analysis of history of abuse and westernization

on perceptions of abuse among

Asian-descent and European-descent students


One limitation to using written scenarios when collecting information on people's perceptions of child abuse is that there is no information on the abuse victim being pictured.  For example, when asking about the appropriateness of spanking a child, a participant picturing a mature 12-year-old may have a different response than someone picturing a young 3-year-old.  Also, the ethnicity of the person being described is left to the imagination of the participants.

Relatively little research has tried to link the characteristics of decision-makers and their assessments of what constitutes abuse (Portwood, 1998).  The professionals charged with identifying abuse (e.g., medical professionals, legal professionals, teaching professionals, etc.) make determinations without considering their own ethnocultural biases (Portwood, 1998).   The inclusion of a variable focused on identification with the majority culture, or 'Westernization', serves to ascertain whether there is a culture specific difference in identifying abusive behaviours which operates above and beyond other personal factors such as ethnic differences or a history of abuse. Since research conducted to date on Asian samples both in Asia and in North America has held filial piety to be the foremost influence on parenting practices, the retention of these beliefs was also tested.  




Participants were undergraduate students (n=601) from a large North American university who volunteered to participate in exchange for course credit. Participants completed self-report questionnaires in private and watched a 6-minute video in a small group of ten or fewer.  Completed questionnaires were dropped anonymously in a sealed box.  Confidentiality was ensured, as no names or student numbers were collected with the data. They were informed of their right to withdraw at any point without the loss of the course credit.  No participants chose to withdraw.  They were also informed of their right to skip any questions that made them uncomfortable.  Participants took home a debriefing form that was verbally explained to them and highlighted counseling services in case any of the questions had been upsetting to them.

Demographic information was collected through self-report methods.  Participants were asked to identify their ethnicity, that of their mother and that of their father.  In addition to these open-ended questions, an explanation of heritage culture accompanied the Vancouver Index of Acculturation scale (Ryder, Alden, & Paulhus, 2000).  These instructions asked students to consider their heritage culture to be the culture that has most influenced them other than North American culture. The following ethnicities were reported by the participants: 177 reported being of East or West European descent, 309 reported being of Chinese descent, 41 reported being of Southeast Asian descent, 32 reported being of Indo-Asian descent, 2 reported being of Afro-Caribbean descent, 8 reported being of Middle Eastern or North African descent, 6 reported being of Hispanic descent, 9 reported being of First Nations or North American Aboriginal descent, and 17 reported multiple ethnicities that included more than one of the groups just mentioned.  


            Westernization In addition to generation level, two other measures were included in the SEM latent variable of Westernization.  First, heritage-identity and mainstream-identity comfort levels was measured using the bidimensional measure of acculturation the Vancouver Index of Acculturation (VIA; Ryder et al., 2000).   Second, the Filial Piety Scale (FP) was used. The FP scale was developed in Hong Kong as part of a movement in Asia to develop indigenous psychological constructs (Zhang & Bond, 1998).  The version used in this dissertation is the English translation reported in the 1994 study by one of the original authors, David Yau-Fai Ho.    

            History of Abuse Three independent measures of child abuse were included in the latent variable History of Abuse.  The first was the Child Abuse & Trauma scale (CAT; Sanders & Becker-Lausen, 1995). The CAT scale surveys a participant's history of experiencing different types of abuse including sexual, physical and psychological abuse.   The second was the Parent-Child Conflict Tactics Scale (CTSPC) developed by Straus, Hamby, Finkelhor, Moore, and Runyan (2000). The CTSPC is a modification of the CTS and designed to focus on physical and psychological aggression toward children.  The original CTS has been used in Asia with satisfactory reliabilities after translation (Tang, 1996; 1998).  The theoretical basis of the CTSPC remains that while conflict is normal, the use of violence to resolve conflict is not (Straus et al., 2000). The third measure was the Parent Discipline Attitudes Survey (PDAS) which is a simple 21 item questionnaire that surveys rates of physical and emotional abuse experienced and was created by Buntain-Ricklefs, Kemper, Bell, and Babonis (1994). 

Perceptions of Abuse - In order to assess whether participants judged abuse differently depending on the ethnicity of the victim, video vignettes were used. The first vignette depicted a young adolescent being hit with a broom handle.  This vignette was filmed with a Chinese descent and a European descent mother-daughter pair. A second vignette depicting a mother emotionally abuse her daughter was also filmed twice with pairs either of Chinese or European descent.

Statistical Analyses

            The complexity of the analyses and the originality of some of the variables required the use of structural equation modeling (SEM) in this dissertation.  SEM was used to explore the relationships among Westernization, histories of child abuse and perceptions of child abuse.  First, the variables used were presented with simple ANOVA analyses used for descriptive results.  Second, a SEM model was specified on a group of 225 students of mixed ethnicity. Finally, the SEM model was tested on two separate populations (e.g., a European descent group (n=177) and a Chinese descent group (n=200)).


The results of this study demonstrated that personal experience with abuse is directly related to how you perceive abuse, and that this relationship is similar across different ethnic groups.  People who have experienced more physical discipline growing up are likely to be the most tolerant of physical discipline and the least likely to identify it as abusive.  A similar relationship exists for emotional abuse, with people who experience the most emotional abuse being the least likely to identify it as abusive.  The SEM models indicated that a history of abuse accounted for a very large portion of the variance in perceptions of abuse (e.g., 38-59%), depending on the group surveyed and the type of abuse presented.  Westernization, however, did not predict perceptions of abusive behaviour.  Contrary to research findings in Asia, filial piety was not significantly correlated with acceptance of physical discipline. 

The model for physical abuse and the model for emotional abuse were equivalent for the two samples according to multi-group structural equation model constraints.  Participants appeared to assess abuse equivalently intra-culturally and cross-culturally.  The age of the child being disciplined changed the acceptability of the physical and emotional discipline strategies. 

This research supported previous findings which revealed that Asian-descent students reported higher levels of physical and emotional abuse than their European-descent counterparts (Kennedy & Gorzalka, 1999).  Since many of the students assessed had only been in North America for a few years, their reported levels of abuse buttressed research conducted in Asia which has refuted the initial claim that child abuse is merely a Western phenomenon (T. P. Ho & Kwok, 1991; Korbin, 1991; McKelvey & Webb, 1995; Tang & Davis, 1996).


This research also addressed to some extent the concern that professionals may be working with ethnocentric definitions of preferred child rearing practices (D'Antonio et al., 1993).  This research did not find that perceptions of what constituted abuse showed ethnic differences, beyond the differences related to personal histories of abuse.  Anecdotal reports may have suggested that ethnic differences in perceptions of abuse might exist (e.g., Gray & Cosgrove, 1985) but this dissertation found that ethnicity was not related to perceptions above and beyond the differences in personal experiences of discipline.  This research buttressed previous research that warned that a personal history of discipline may lead to differences in perceptions of abusive behaviour (Bower-Russa et al., 2001; Buntain-Ricklefs et al., 1994).  An understanding of personal differences in experience of abuse can contribute greatly to a sensitive assessment of current parenting strategies and discipline philosophies.  Professionals who are attempting to overcome ethnocentric perspectives can benefit by taking into account the personal experience of the clients they are trying to counsel.  Researchers have argued that professionals who bear the responsibility of intervention will be more able to accurately assess risk and identify a family's weaknesses and strengths, if they are aware of cultural variations in child treatment (Rubin, 1992; Terao et al., 2001).  Professionals may gain additional insight by considering their own personal history of discipline and how it may be comparable to their current assessments of other people's behaviours.