Basic Investigative Protocol for Child Sexual Abuse

Article excerpt

Few crimes elicit such moral outrage and desire for social retaliation as the sexual abuse of a child. As with many other crimes, most experts would say that this occurs with far greater frequency in our society than what official statistics reflect. Estimates from independent research vary considerably, not only because of the covert nature of the crime but also because of variations in methodology, definitions, and sampling techniques.

Some experts estimate that 20 percent of girls and 9 percent of boys are sexually abused during childhood(1) and that one person in three is a victim of that crime before the age of 18.(2) In short, child sexual abuse occurs with alarming frequency.

Largely due to increased activism by former victims, a growing appreciation exists for the need to enhance law enforcement's capability for recognizing and properly investigating these crimes. In aiming to accomplish those objectives, most states now require that police and child protective service (CPS) agencies conduct joint investigations of child abuse. Unfortunately, the idea has not gained universal acceptance. One possible drawback stems from conflicting philosophies that sometimes exist when the police work in partnership with outside social service agencies. The lack of resources needed to provide essential joint training for police and CPS investigators presents another problem. Consequently, some joint investigative approaches become so informal and methodologically flawed that they can actually compound the harm to the family already caused by the criminal act. In the worst-case scenario, police may incarcerate the wrong person, while the child remains accessible to the real perpetrator.

Ultimately, police administrators should recognize that the basic rules of criminal investigation are not optional; they must be applied in conjunction with a multidisciplinary approach. If this is done, the model will serve as an excellent blueprint for avoiding tragic investigative mistakes.


In 1995, the state of Oklahoma adopted a multidisciplinary team approach for investigating reports involving sexual abuse or severe physical abuse and neglect of children under Chapter 71 of the Oklahoma Child Abuse Reporting and Prevention Act. Section 7110 of the act mandated that each district attorney convene a meeting of a coordinated multidisciplinary team. Each team would consist of at least the following members:

* a licensed mental health professional or counselor;

* law enforcement officers with experience or training in child abuse investigations;

* medical personnel with experience in child abuse identification;

* CPS workers within the department of human services;

* a multidisciplinary team coordinator or child advocacy center director; and

* a district attorney or designee.

The teams would perform the following functions:

* review investigations, ensure the child gets needed services, and facilitate efficient and appropriate disposition of cases;

* develop written protocols for conducting investigations and interviewing victims;

* prepare a written agreement, signed by all members, specifying the role of the team;

* increase communication and cooperation among law enforcement, medical, and counseling professionals;

* eliminate duplicative efforts;

* identify gaps in service and seek additional resources within the community that can provide services to the victim and family;

* encourage discipline-specific and cross-discipline training of investigators;

* formalize a case review and case-tracking process; and

* standardize investigative procedures.

The model adopted by Oklahoma parallels similar approaches used by many other states. In fact, by the early 1990s a majority of states had either mandated or authorized multidisciplinary teams for investigating child abuse. …