Risk Assessment in Child Sexual Abuse Cases

Article excerpt

Despite continuing improvements in risk assessment for child protective services (CPS) and movement toward actuarial prediction of child maltreatment, current models have not adequately addressed child sexual abuse. Sexual abuse cases present unique and ambiguous indicators to the investigating professional, and risk factors differ from those related to physical abuse and neglect. Incorporation of research on risk factors specifically related to sexual offender recidivism into existing CPS risk assessment models may improve the ability to assess the risk of future sexual maltreatment to children. This article reviews the literature on risk factors for sexual offense recidivism and discusses their relevance and application to CPS assessment models. An evidence-based model for assessing risk in child sexual abuse cases is proposed.

During the past 20 years, child sexual abuse increasingly has been recognized as a significant social problem with complex and far-reaching consequences for victims, families, and society. According to the National Center on Child Abuse Prevention Research, 223,650 alleged child victims of sexual abuse were reported to child welfare agencies in 1997 (Wang & Daro, 1998). Surveys have found that as many as 23% of adults report they were sexually abused before the age of 18 (Finkelhor, Moore, Hamby, & Straus, 1997).

Generally, child protective service (CPS) agencies are the entry point through which sexual abuse cases are reported, investigated, and referred for intervention. In their role of protecting children from future harm, CPS workers are centrally involved in the process of determining whether reports of abuse can be substantiated and police or family court involvement is warranted (Drake & Johnson-Reid, 2000).

While most states use risk assessment protocols that consider some empirically derived factors to help child welfare workers make child safety decisions, these protocols have not clearly identified and separated sexual abuse risk factors from those related to other types of abuse (Camasso & Jagannathan, 2000; English, 1996). In recent years, however, sexual violence researchers (Epperson, Kaul, Huot, Hesselton, Alexander, & Goldman, 1999a; Hanson & Bussiere, 1996,1998; Hanson & Thornton, 1999) have contributed important new data on risk factors and risk prediction specifically related to sexual assault and abuse. Incorporation of sex offender recidivism research in existing CPS risk assessment models may improve the ability to assess the risk of future sexual maltreatment to children.

Background

Since the 1980s, researchers have been making important strides in identifying risk factors predictive of physical child abuse and neglect (Baird, 1988; Doueck, English, DePanfilis, & Moote, 1993; Johnson & L'Esperance, 1984; McDonald & Marks, 1991; Weedon, Torti, & Zunder, 1988). Risk factors have been found to fall into several broad categories, including child characteristics, parental characteristics, environmental factors, and parent-child interactions. The variables identified as most predictive include the age and vulnerability of the child and the perpetrator's access to the child (Weedon et al., 1988). To some extent, these factors have informed the consensus-based risk assessment models commonly used by CPS agencies, in which workers assess client characteristics described in the research literature and then exercise their own clinical judgment about the risk of future abuse or neglect (Baird & Wagner, 2000; Baird, Wagner, Healy, & Johnson, 1999). Many researchers (Baird, 1997; Baird & Wagner, 2000; Baird et al., 1999; Camasso & Jagannathan, 2000; Gambrill & Shlonsky, 2000; Ruscio, 1998), however, have expressed concern that consensus-based instruments generally demonstrate poor reliability and validity.

In a comparative study of the use and effectiveness of CPS risk assessment models conducted collaboratively by the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, Baird (1997) addresses the weak reliability of risk assessment in child welfare. …