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Researchers Battle Bill Limiting Surveys of Children

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Washington

Researchers are battling a bill pending in Congress that would require written parental consent before minors could participate in any federally financed survey.

They say the bill could seriously hamper such studies as the widely cited University of Michigan survey on youth drug, alcohol, and cigarette use.

The proposed Family Privacy Protection Act, which passed overwhelmingly in the House, is an outgrowth of House Republicans' "Contract with America." It has been promoted as a much-needed restriction on surveys that ask children inappropriate questions about sexual behavior, drug use, and family and religious issues.

But social scientists say that requiring written parental consent would increase research costs and diminish the size of research samples, especially among at-risk youths, whose parents would be most difficult to reach.

"This bill would make it very hard to learn about behaviors, such as driving behavior and sexual behavior, of the children that are most at risk," said Gerald E. Sroufe, a lobbyist for the American Educational Research Association here. "You're going to have smaller research samples and probably biased samples."

Researchers said they agree that parents should be informed when their children are included in a study. But while most parents do not object to their children's participation, written consent forms are hard to obtain. The research community supports the concept of "informed consent," in which parents are notified about research and may exclude their children from surveys on their own initiative.

"The heart of the problem is that a good half of parents in a normal survey population don't respond when a letter is sent home," said Lloyd D. Johnston, the program director of the University of Michigan's Survey Research Center, whose federally backed Monitoring the Future survey studies drug, alcohol and cigarette use among 50,000 middle and high school students.

Other examples of major surveys that would be affected by the bill are the Youth Behavior Survey and the Teenage Attitudes and Practices Survey, both conducted by the Bureau of the Census for the National Center for Health Statistics.

Goals 2000 Provision

Supporters of the bill argue that the rights of parents should take precedence.

"While it will require some effort by researchers to obtain written consent ... an individual parent should be able to decide whether his or her child is used for research purposes," Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, a leading supporter of the bill, said last week through a spokesman.

The pending bill mirrors language in the 1994 Goals 2000: Educate America Act. The provision, also sponsored by Mr. Grassley, already requires the Department of Education to obtain written par-ental consent for any survey that touches on political affiliations, mental and psychological problems, sex behavior and attitudes, "illegal, anti-social, self-incriminating, and demeaning behavior," critical appraisals of family members, privileged relationships, or income.

The law, and the pending bill, do not apply to academic testing.

The family-privacy bill would add the category of religious beliefs and would cover all federally supported research.

Sen. Grassley has said that he believes the Education Department has gutted the Goals 2000 provision with weak regulations.

"The worst thing that Congress could do would be to have one law for all education programs and another slightly different law for all other federally funded programs," the senator said at a hearing last fall.

The House passed the bill 418-7 in April 1995. A committee had removed the requirement of written parental consent, but the House passed an amendment restoring it.

Possible Exemptions

During floor debate, conservative members cited studies to which they objected, including some that purportedly asked children whether they had ever had homosexual feelings or whether they had ever performed oral sex.

Other lawmakers, and many researchers, question whether some of the surveys politicians have in mind are federally backed. And some supporters of the family-privacy bill admit that they would really like to curtail all surveys that ask children about sex.

"Many of these surveys are politically biased attempts to put a scientific gloss on an ideologically driven agenda," argued Robert H. Knight, the director of cultural studies for the Family Research Council, a Washington-based conservative advocacy group.

The House bill was reported out of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee on April 18 and awaits floor action.

Some senators are discussing carving out exceptions to the consent requirement for several long-term federal drug surveys. But research groups question the value of exempting one or more subject areas and are stepping up their fight against the requirement.

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