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New York Department of Homeless Services Study Violates Research Ethics Principles

By | Oct 28, 2010

Editor’s note: We have covered the New York Department of Homeless Services troubling study of one of their homeless services programs here and here.  In this post Dr. Mary McLaughlin explains how the study violates research ethics.

Social research programs have been conducted for centuries. Basic data collection procedures such as taking the census were reported in religious documents like The New Testament over two thousand years ago.

By the nineteenth century, research questions had became so subtle and detailed that increasingly complex analysis strategies were developed to process the data.

John Stuart Mill initiated a process of hypothesis testing and Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher made significant contributions in the areas of experimental design, analysis of variance and likelihood based methods of data analysis that remain in use today.

Research ethics questions were not carefully addressed until the second half of the twentieth century, pursuant to shocking disclosures about two research programs:

  • Testimony during the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial revealed that gruesome experiments were conducted on twins who were concentration camp prisoners during World War II;
  • Reports about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, conducted during the 1950’s and 1960’s in the United States, revealed that a known effective treatment for syphilis was withheld from study participants infected with the disease.

National Research Act

As a result, the National Research Act was signed into law in the United States in 1974 and a commission for the protection of human subjects in biomedical and behavioral research was created. It identified ethical principles for performing research on study participants, detailed in a document called The Belmont Report, that fall into three general areas:

  1. Beneficence
  2. Justice
  3. Respect for persons.

Although the commission did not make specific recommendations with respect to social experimentation, ethical principles based on The Belmont Report influenced the development of standards in applied social research.

Ethical standards in that area center on the concepts of

  1. Voluntary participation
  2. Informed consent
  3. Prohibition against putting study participants into situations wherein they might be at risk of harm
  4. The issue of a person’s right to service
  5. Anonymity
  6. Confidentiality

Universities, hospitals and other institutions which conduct research formed Institutional Review Boards (IRB’s) charged with reviewing study proposals with respect to ethical implications and the protection of study participants so as to assure that research is consistent with the ethical foundations of regulations.

New York City Department of Homeless Services

At this time, the New York City Department of Homeless Services is following a research protocol developed to assess the effectiveness of its HomeBase program which provides services to homeless and near homeless families.

During the department’s investigation, two hundred families will receive HomeBase services and two hundred families will be prohibited from receiving services for two years but will receive a list of area non-profit organizations (NPO’s) to contact on their own.

The New York City Council has announced that its General Welfare Committee will review the HomeBase study protocol on December 9, 2010, pursuant to expressions of outrage by study participants and other concerned citizens.

The following questions should be addressed at that meeting:

  • Is this investigation consistent with ethical research principles that have been developed as standards for social experiments with human beings?
  • Given that the rights of children have historically been vigorously protected by IRB’s, was the study protocol reviewed by an IRB at the City University of New York, the institution charged with oversight of this investigation?
  • Why is this $530,000 investigation being conducted at all given that the HomeBase program is already known to be highly effective as reported in the Mayor’s 2010 Management Report?
  • How does the city reconcile its denial of services to two hundred families for two years with its record of repeated losses and settlements in lawsuits against the city and state of New York that insure the right to shelter for homeless men, women, children and families in New York City and state beginning in 1981, pursuant to Callahan v Carey, and culminating as recently as 2008 with a court judgment in Boston v The City of New York which reaffirmed the right to shelter for homeless families with children?
  • Is this investigation an initiative by the city to evade its repeatedly reaffirmed legal responsibility to provide shelter to homeless people and families by attempting to pass these responsibilities on to area NPO’s?
  • Given that minimal assistance is reported to be forthcoming from overburdened area NPO’s, does this investigation include measurements of the incidence of such well known threats to homeless men, women and children as thefts, assaults, rapes, homicides, illnesses, injuries, accidents, occurrences of pedophilia, family dissolution and loss of child custody?
  • Is the City prepared to pay damages awards including the possibility of punitive damages to study participants who subsequently sue?

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