Coordinating Investigations of Child Abuse

By Sheppard, David I.; Zangrillo, Patricia A. | Public Welfare, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Coordinating Investigations of Child Abuse


Sheppard, David I., Zangrillo, Patricia A., Public Welfare


Many law enforcement agencies and child protective service (CPS) units of public child welfare agencies across the nation are conducting joint investigations of reported child abuse. The impetus for this cooperation comes mainly from state laws requiring these two agencies to notify one another of incoming reports of child abuse and to work with one another. Such coordination has the primary benefits of lessening trauma to child victims from repetitious and possibly conflicting investigations and improving efficiency and effectiveness in investigating these often difficult cases.

The Police Foundation and the American Public Welfare Association (APWA) conducted a study of law enforcement and CPS agencies in 1991 and 1992 to determine how law enforcement and CPS can improve joint investigations of child abuse cases and to identify program models that facilitate cooperation. The project had three main objectives:

* examine joint investigations at the local level by conducting a national survey of law enforcement and CPS agencies,

* identify elements of effective joint investigations by studying innovative cooperative programs in selected localities, and

* develop joint investigation program models to enhance existing programs.

We sent two separate surveys -- one to CPS agencies and one to law enforcement agencies -- using a national random sample of counties, stratified by populations. Three hundred twenty-five municipal police agencies, 279 county law enforcement agencies, and 239 child welfare agencies responded. After analyzing the surveys, we conducted case studies in seven counties across the nation. We then used the results of the case studies and the national surveys to develop guidelines for three model joint investigation programs. These models offer a general description of each program, describe different program elements, and provide basic and enhanced program options. They include

* a model that uses existing agency personnel and resources,

* a model offering a multidisciplinary interview center to facilitate victim interviews, and

* a model that uses a comprehensive child advocacy center for more effective joint investigations.

These models, which are outlined in detail in sidebars throughout this article, offer a choice to communities that have varying resources to devote to a joint investigation program.

Differing Roles

Child maltreatment reports have increased from 150,000 to 2.9 children per year since the early 1960s, according to the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect.(1) This increase is largely attributable to changes in state reporting laws. By 1967, all states had enacted legislation requiring doctors, teachers, and other professionals to report suspected instances of child abuse. These laws identified CPS agencies and law enforcement departments as the primary bodies to receive these reports and mandated that law enforcement and CPS agencies notify each other of reported cases to encourage cooperation in investigations.(2)

CPS units of public child welfare agencies are required to investigate all cases of reported child sexual abuse, physical abuse, and neglect, as defined by state statutes, occurring within a family. Most cases of abuse outside of a child's family are investigated by the police; CPS typically investigates cases of child abuse outside of the family only if the caretakers are suspected of somehow abetting the abuse or of not protecting the child against the abuse.

CPS is charged with protecting children from threatened or future harm. Threatened harm is usually based on past harm to the child by a family member during a pattern or incident of abuse or neglect. It may also be based on behavior capable of harmimg the child in the future. During or as a result of an investigation, CPS can recommend to the juvenile or family courts the removal of the child from the home for his or her protection. …

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