Survey Design for TANF Caseload Project: Summary Report and Recommendations. Common Measures Used, Pros and Cons


There is no universally accepted typology of different kinds of domestic abuse, and little consensus about how to assess its presence. To date, the development of survey measures of domestic violence have focused primarily on physical violence, with less attention given to other forms of domestic abuse. Most welfare studies administer some variation of the Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS).(1) By focusing on specific behaviors, rather than broad questions about abuse, the CTS is thought to reduce measurement error associated with both under- and over-reporting. Over the years, researchers have created numerous variations and adaptations of the CTS since it was developed in 1972. The original Form A included three subsets of questions related to Reasoning, Verbal/Symbolic Aggression, and Physical Violence (Strauss 1979). The most commonly used questions are the nine items that make up the original Physical Violence subscale. However, restricting measurement of domestic violence to severe physical abuse means having to exclude such other abusive strategies as emotional abuse and controlling behavior. For that reason, researchers have modified the subscale to include questions about these other abusive strategies. For more information on the CTS, please see.

The widely used Physical Violence subscale of the CTS was administered in all three waves of the WES, along with additional items about abuse. In addition, the CalWORKS Prevalence Project asked recipients questions from a modified version of the CTS, and went beyond physical abuse to ask about stalking (one item); verbal abuse (one item), controlling behavior (four items), and other threats (four items). The rate of physical abuse reported in the WES during the past 12 months was almost 15 percent. The CalWORKS Prevalence Project found similar rates: 16 percent among Kern County welfare recipients, 25 percent among Stanislaus County welfare applicants. When CalWORKS included the other forms of domestic violence in their measure of any abuse in the past 12 months, they found 35 percent and 49 percent in Kern and Stanislaus counties, respectively.

The frame of reference with respect to when the domestic abuse occurred is important because it can greatly influence reports. The CTS asks whether the respondent ever experienced the abusive event and, if so, whether it occurred during the past 12 months. The CalWORKS Prevalence Project, which used the CTS, reported that 62 percent of Kern County recipients and 64 percent of Stanislaus County applicants had been physically abused at some time in their lives.

The Iowa Child Impact Survey asked respondents five questions about different types of abusive behavior: emotional abuse, threats, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and controlling behavior. Respondents who answer affirmatively are asked to identify the relationship of the perpetrator (for example, husband, boyfriend, partner) and how recently the event occurred, up to two years prior to the interview. The Nebraska survey used the same items but in a way that was more feasible for telephone administration. An additional item in the Nebraska survey asks how much the respondents relationship interfered with her work or job training in the past year.

The Alameda study took yet another approach to the measurement of domestic violence. It asks seven questions about whether someone in the past year did any of the following things to the respondent: stole money, fought with the respondent, choked the respondent, threw something or hit the respondent, hurt the respondent so much she had to go to the doctor or clinic, forced her to have sex, or used a knife or gun on the respondent. If the respondent experienced any of these events, she was asked to identify whether the perpetrator was a stranger, a partner, another family member, or someone else the respondent knows.

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