Parental consent is at the core of the ethical and methodological debate concerning children’s participation in research. Giving parental permission is considered simultaneously as a right, a duty, a power and a responsibility of parents.
Adults and, especially, parents are responsible for defending the best interests of their children. Because they usually have a unique relationship with their children, formed by an affective bond, that gives them privileged knowledge, they are key actors in defending their child’s well-being [5
]. However, as Hagger argues, the assumption that parents are always in the best position to make the most appropriate decisions on behalf of their children is not always true [5
]. In fact, parents may not have enough information to make decisions, or may decide according to their own interests and views, disregarding their children’s perspective. Furthermore, as Hagger points out, research is a complex process with many implicit aspects that are unpredictable and, as such, may not be anticipated by parents [5
]. Ultimately, parents’ interests may be in conflict with those of their children.
As a result of adults’ self-interest or their interpretation of children’s interests, children are subject to relationships of power and control that are expressed in terms of obligations, expectations and prohibitions that may obstruct their participation in research. Sometimes silencing their voice as victims and at other times denying their testimony as witnesses, in any event, these relationships disregard their perspective. Beyond the ethical issues raised, this may lead to a sample bias that could compromise the validity of research results and the development of knowledge about phenomena of social interest [12
]. Underlying these concerns is the dialectic between children’s rights to protection and participation and the associated concepts of child autonomy and competence [6
]. As stated by Ruiz-Casares et al., “Whereas sometimes the lack of adult involvement can hinder children’s and young people’s development and access to resources, overprotection of children and young people can result in their exclusion from processes that affect them at the expense of the children and young people themselves and substantial loss for the communities where they live.” [7
] (p. 4) This raises the problem of the need for parental consent and its possible limits, especially considering two variables: the age of the child and the legitimacy of the parent.
2.1. The Problem of Child Incompetence
Although varying across countries [16
], typically national laws and regulations are based on the legal age of consent, grounded on the concepts of children’s immaturity and incompetence. On the other hand, parents are deemed natural and responsible decision makers for their children. Such static and abstract conceptions of children’s and adults’ capacities are conventional but arbitrary. In fact, both the legitimacy and power of parents to give their children permission to participate in research and children’s heteronomy and incompetence are not considered absolute or universal. On the contrary, as Cashmore contends, there is a remarkable range of opinions [12
], either based on developmental and neurological evidence [17
] or ethical and methodological arguments [18
What is at stake is that competence is not age-related [15
] nor is autonomy. Childhood is a developmental period that involves continuous maturation, learning, and change of behaviours and capabilities. Children’s participation in research should reflect this evolution and their social involvement [7
]. Conversely, children’s competence also depends on their experience of participation supported by adults (scaffolding) [15
]. Autonomy is also relational in nature; Sabatello et al. refer to this concept as autonomy with others
to designate a “dynamic process of negotiation” between children and parents [6
] (p. 2). According to these views, parents are not proxies for children until they reach the age at which they are legally competent and morally autonomous, but they support the development of their children’s competencies, enabling their decision-making. Therefore, similar to what Olszewski and Goldkind argue for medical treatments [19
], participation of children in research should be the “default position”, and each case should be assessed per se
]. Beyond ethical arguments that could support this position, empirical research reveals that, given appropriate information and time, children’s decision-making is comparable to adults [17
2.2. The Limits of Parental Consent
Vulnerable children often find themselves in complex circumstances (e.g., unaccompanied, looked after, runaway or otherwise separated from parents) [8
] and in situations where families put them at risk and compromise their well-being, as in the case of violence. When parents do not protect their children from harm and, additionally, are a danger to them, these problems are compounded: on the one hand, children are vulnerable due to the risk of harm or to the actual harm suffered; on the other hand, they are also vulnerable as they lack adults that are responsible for representing them and acting as informed mediators.
Violence against children is a situation where there is an acknowledged conflict of interests between parents and children, resulting in a lack of parental protection. Therefore, in obtaining consent for children’s participation in research, many authors recognize that parental authorisation is not an unconditional requirement, especially when children have been maltreated [20
]. Furthermore, asking for parental consent may place children at risk [8
], if children are in contact with the violent parent(s) [21
Some scholars recommend considering the interest of children’s involvement in research in terms of the benefit for the individual participant vs
social benefit. In no circumstances, should the interests of children in general be used to justify the possibility of potential harm to the participating child. Moreover, participants’ benefit should prevail over social and scientific interests [20
]. However, this cost-benefit analysis should be carefully considered. For children who are victims, participation in research does not always have direct and immediate impact e.g., in terms of reducing the violence they are undergoing or its damaging consequences [22
]. Yet, the experience of being listened to, and the opportunities to have their experiences validated and assigned meaning, can have positive effects [22
] and lead to empowerment [21
]. Furthermore, the social impact of research cannot be underestimated. The results of studies can be used to inform policies and professional practices to improve prevention and intervention on VAC that go beyond the immediate participants of the studies themselves, to the benefit of other children [22
The question that arises under these circumstances is who should give consent for children to participate in research. There is a growing consensus that child protection takes precedence over parental rights [3
]. Perry [8
] claims that violence and abuse are private matters of social interest. However, according to Koocher & Keith-Spiegel [9
], the courts normally only interfere with family relationships long after damage from bad parental decisions has been done.
In view of the obstacles that normally arise in relation to children’s participation in research on sensitive topics and particularly on VAC, and given the urgent need for research into these issues, research ethics committees (RECs) play a critical role. Research on VAC requires specialized theoretical and methodological, as well as ethical, knowledge in all stages of the research process, particularly: design, ethical review procedures, informed consent, recruitment, assessment, intervention, and dissemination [24
]. RECs are responsible for analysing research projects from the perspective of the rights and risks of the participants involved. Therefore, as Cater and Øverlienb [21
] state, RECs should carefully consider any situation where parents refuse consent for their children’s right to participate and thus its potential empowering effects.
Furthermore, it should be noted that informed consent is more than just “a consent form or a legal document”, it is “a communication and decision process” [25
] (p. 5), with specificities relating to the type of research, its objectives, context and participants. Typically social research involves “a two-way exchange of information between researcher and potential participants” [8
] (p. 36); however most research with children implies a “triad” that includes necessary interactions with parents or children’s legal representatives [10
]. Yet, in the case of research on VAC, the informed consent process often involves a dynamic of multiple relationships, usually in a hierarchy of gatekeepers. Though based on ethical standards for children protection, RECs appraisal of research on VAC normally adopts a conventional and legalistic stance; issues related to children’s right to participate and be involved in what concerns their own protection and well-being [7
] are very rarely considered. Following Ruiz-Casares et al., the nature and requirements of effective participation for children and young people in the context of child protection are not resolved and are an on-going area of concern [7