Dr. Darcey Merritt Receives NIH Funding to Study Parental Perspectives on Child Neglect

Dr. Darcey Merritt
Dr. Darcey Merritt

Associate Professor Darcey Merritt has been awarded an Exploratory/Developmental Research Grant (R21) from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) for a study that aims to redefine the way we think of child neglect based on mothers’ perspectives on their behavioral choices.

“We typically design policies and interventions for parents involved with the child welfare system without thoroughly understanding the context in which they live,” said Dr. Merritt. “Listening to parents and assessing the elements associated with their parenting choices is a first step toward identifying modifiable determinants of child neglect to inform effective prevention.”

The approximately $500,000 grant will fund a two-year, mixed methods study done in two phases. First, Dr. Merritt and her team will conduct an in-depth qualitative exploration of perspectives on supervisory and physical child neglect among 35 mothers served by New York Foundling Preventive Services and 10 of the organization’s social workers.

Based on the qualitative findings, Dr. Merritt and Co-Investigator Professor James Jaccard will conduct an elicitation analysis, which includes designing a quantitative survey, grounded in decision theory, through which 150 mothers will be encouraged to access their working memory and identify contextualized factors that underlie their behaviors related to supervisory and physical neglect.

The goal, said Dr. Merritt, is to elicit the parental decision-making processes that result in behaviors typically deemed by child welfare service providers as neglectful. For example, she said, a mother who has an abusive partner may think she is being more responsible leaving her two-year-old with her fourteen-year-old than with her abuser when she goes to the market. Or a mother may think she is protecting her son by teaching him to communicate or behave more aggressively if they live in a neighborhood where she expects he will have to defend himself when he goes outside.

“It is important to include the voices of parents under the supervision of child welfare services in the literature, service planning, treatment design, and policy initiatives,” said Dr. Merritt, who plans to use findings from the current study to lay the foundation for a future NICHD Research Project Grant (R01). “Studying child welfare-involved mothers’ perspectives on salient contextual influences, underpinned by decision theory, will help a great deal in understanding the parenting choices mothers make with respect to child neglect,” said Dr. Merritt. “We will be in a stronger position to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of neglect and design prevention programs that acknowledge the decision-making process in parenting behaviors, with the ultimate goal to reduce neglect.”