Student's Corner

How to choose a research topic in the field of child maltreatment

Section student representatives offer their recommendations and share resources for how to write a research paper.

By Grace Bai and Jonathan Reader

It can be a daunting task to decide on a research topic in the field of child maltreatment given how broad and vast the literature in this field can be. Here are some tips that may be helpful in guiding a research paper for students:

Start broad and then narrow down your topic

It may be helpful to review statistical facts, general information or recent publications about child maltreatment in general or the child welfare system.

Example sources include:

  • Child Welfare Information Gateway. Provides access to a wide range of child welfare topics, such as child abuse prevention, family preservation, foster care and adoption.
  • Children's Bureau. “Partners with federal, state, tribal and local agencies to improve the overall health and well-being of our nation's children and families.” Provides support and guidance to programs that focus on: 1) strengthening families and preventing child abuse and neglect, 2) protecting children when abuse or neglect has occurred and 3) ensuring that every child has a permanent family or family connection.
  • Department of Children & Family Services. Every state has a department. As a sample, this listing directs to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, but there are similar departments in every state .
  • The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Provides comprehensive information on different types of childhood trauma (e.g., neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, community violence, domestic violence).
  • The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children. Provides links to various knowledge bases, websites and journals that deal with child maltreatment.
  • The National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Provides links to publications organizations and “maintains a library of resources on issues related to sexual violence and its prevention.”
  • The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. “Works to end sexual violence and advocates for the rights and needs of sexual assault victims.” Their resources webpage consists of e-learning tools and a library of print resources.
  • The Child Maltreatment Solutions Network. Offers information about awareness events, child welfare, prevention, treatment, policy, research and centers and committees dedicated to the improvement of children's lives.
  • The Washington State Institute for Public Policy. Reports on the cost-effectiveness of prevention and intervention programs, including child maltreatment prevention programs such as SafeCare and the Nurse Family Partnership.

Reviewing this information may help you identify a broad category you would like to explore further. To narrow your focus, identify what interests you within your chosen topic area and develop a list of key search terms.

Conduct a lit review

Discussing ideas with a mentor and other colleagues can be tremendously helpful as they are likely to have knowledge and expertise in the area beyond your own. Further, reading empirical papers, especially recent ones, at least within the last decade, that interest you can also give you some ideas about a direction for future research, as suggested in the discussion section.

To conduct a broad literature review, try using Google Scholar or another database (e.g., PsychINFO, PubMed). It may also be helpful to search for key terms in important journals in your field (e.g., Child Maltreatment, Child Abuse & Neglect). Start recent. This will give you an idea of the most cutting edge research happening in your field. Pay attention to articles that those authors are citing, you may be stumbling upon some seminal works.

Identify a reason for your study

Finally, once you have reviewed the literature, identify the rationale for your study: what has not been studied about before and why it is important (e.g., public policy impact, addresses a research gap, etc.)?