This article describes the development and testing of a tool called the Expectations Test. Drawing on research that suggests that people who have experienced trauma process information differently than those who have not been traumatized, the Expectations Test asks children for their responses to a series of photographs.
The 16 black-and-white photographs depict a variety of scenes. For example, one photo shows a girl standing next to the open door of a car with a man inside it. Children are asked to describe how the child feels and what they think will happen to the child. Researchers theorized that children who had been abused or traumatized would be more likely to think that the children in the photos were about to be harmed.
Since it does not require any reading, the Expectations Test can be used with young children. It also is a way to assess children's exposure to trauma without directly asking them about it, which could be upsetting for children.
In order to test their ideas about how abused and traumatized children would respond to the photos, researchers showed the photos to two sets of children. The first set of children had no history of trauma and had never received mental health services. The second set of children was drawn from groups of children known to have suffered a variety of traumas. Some had been sexually abused or were suspected of having been abused. Others were homeless or were receiving psychiatric care. Also included in this group were children whose parents were being investigated for abusing or neglecting them.
As the researchers expected, the traumatized children were more likely to think the children in the photographs were about to be harmed in some way. Children's ideas about what would happen to the children in the photos were also related to their own states of mind. For example, children not living at home who said they missed their parents were more likely to think that the children in the photos were about to be separated from their parents.
While the test cannot be used as the only tool to determine whether a child has been abused, the Expectations Test allowed researchers to correctly determine whether a child had been abused in 70 percent of the children studied.