Abstract: Rigor and Respect: Recruitment Strategies for Engaging Vulnerable Populations in Research (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

390P Rigor and Respect: Recruitment Strategies for Engaging Vulnerable Populations in Research

Friday, January 14, 2022
Marquis BR Salon 6, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Jennifer O'Brien, PhD, Assistant professor, University of New Hampshire, Durham
Kathryne Brewer, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of New Hampshire, Durham, Durham, NH
Background and Purpose: Vulnerable populations are defined as individuals at "higher risks of harm or wrong", and they are therefore a critical focus for research seeking to find ways to improve safety and well-being. Incorporating vulnerable populations into qualitative research can strengthen identification practices and provide a foundation for addressing the unique mental, physical, and behavioral needs of a particular population. Unfortunately, many of these populations remain under-investigated due to difficulty reaching, engaging, and safely including vulnerable individuals in research. While most researchers assert the importance of including vulnerable populations in research, few actively and successfully recruit them. Researchers interested in conducting research with vulnerable groups must balance respect for vulnerable groups with methodological rigor.

This presentation will examine one researcher’s attempt at balancing rigor and respect while conducting qualitative research examining risk and resiliency among domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST) survivors. DMST is defined as the commercialized sexual exploitation of individuals under the age of 18 within their country of origin.

Methods: A detailed case study examining the recruitment techniques used to conduct an in-depth qualitative study with DMST survivors will be provided. The case study includes techniques for initial recruitment, follow-up interviews, and member checking. Presenters will detail the challenges encountered during the DMST study’s recruitment phase and subsequent adjustments to recruitment strategies, including the use of survivor leaders, expert advisory groups, and participant empowerment. The provided case example is not meant to be an example of a perfectly executed research study. Instead, it is meant to offer a candid account of challenges, successes, and lessons learned in service of building methodological techniques for recruitment that both honor participant experiences while championing methodological rigor.

Discussion: Cultivating a relationship between the research team and members of vulnerable populations is an important aspect of recruitment. Recommendations for consideration beyond basic eligibility and inclusion criteria therefore include the researcher understanding the complexities of trust, traumatic experiences, and disclosure of exploitative experiences. Presenters offer evidence-based suggestions of ways to build trust with members of vulnerable populations, including involving members of vulnerable populations in study development, recruitment procedures, and dissemination. Histories traumatic experiences often can complicate the data collection process through heightened emotional and somatic response. Therefore, researchers need to anticipate the effect of trauma histories on both participation and the quality of data. Finally, mindful moderation of participant disclosure of exploitative experiences is necessary for balancing benefit and scientific value of the study and research questions with recruitment and safety needs. Specifically, researchers must weigh the benefits of qualitatively exploring the details of an individuals’ traumatic experiences with participant safety and the potential risks of revictimization.

Conclusions: Conducting qualitative research with vulnerable populations is often challenging, both with regard to recruiting participants and to balancing methodological rigor with respect for the participants’ experiences and vulnerabilities. Implications for recruitment of other vulnerable populations, including women and children experiencing homelessness, maltreatment, or intimate partner violence, will be discussed.