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The Role of First Responders in Child Maltreatment Cases: Disaster and Nondisaster Situations
Office on Child Abuse and Neglect, Children's Bureau. Cage, Richard., Salus, Marsha K.|
|Year Published: 2010|
Initial Response and Investigation
In This Chapter
- Responsibilities of first responders in cases of suspected child maltreatment
- Questions to be considered during an assessment or investigation
- Interviewing the alleged child victim
- Interviewing adults (alleged offenders and non-offenders)
- Documenting interviews
- Working in multidisciplinary teams
- Observing the scene
- Collecting physical evidence
- Assessing safety and developing a safety plan
- Next steps in the process
- First responders' roles in child fatalities
First responders who discover signs of possible child maltreatment, or who are in a situation in which child maltreatment may have occurred, should first ensure the safety of the child. They immediately should assess whether there are any significant and immediate threats to the child or others at the scene, including the first responders themselves. If there is any threat to safety, first responders should take immediate action to establish a safe environment. Once the scene is safe, first responders should begin an investigation and assess the future safety of the child and other family members.
|Response and Investigation During Disasters|
The response and investigation steps described in this chapter may not be wholly applicable during disaster or other emergency situations. During disasters, response and investigation protocols may be very different than during "normal" circumstances. First responders should be familiar with their agencies' protocols and use their own judgment regarding their safety and the safety of the families with which they are working. For more information, see Chapter 5, Responding in Disasters.
Appendix D, Reference Guide for Responding to Cases of Suspected Child Maltreatment, synthesizes key points from this chapter and Chapter 2, Recognizing Child Maltreatment, into a two-page handout.
Responsibilities of First Responders in Cases of Suspected Child Maltreatment
While the responsibilities and initial investigation methodologies of first responders often overlap, there are also important differences. Exhibit 3-1 outlines the responsibilities of each first responder when attending to a possible case of child maltreatment, and exhibit 3-2 summarizes the key questions each type of first responder should consider in these cases.
*Some of the responsibilities listed for law enforcement may not be the responsibility of the first law enforcement officer at the scene. A detective or a specially trained investigator may be assigned the case later to complete the investigation.
Primary Questions That Should Be Considered
During an Initial Assessment or Investigation52
|Objectivity of First Responders|
First responders should begin each case with objectivity. One of the biggest problems confronting many first responders is jumping to conclusions before all the facts have been presented and assessed. First responders can minimize this by initially developing several theories of what actually happened in each case. Examples of theories include:
First responders should explore each of their theories thoroughly through interviews and evidence collection.
Interviewing the Alleged Child Victim
The child interview often is the focal point of the investigation. Many forms of child maltreatment leave few or no physical marks or evidence, and child interviews may be crucial to the case. Conducting these interviews can be challenging, but training and experience can assist first responders in gathering accurate, helpful information. What follows is information about the basics of conducting child interviews, developmental considerations, and tips on how to conduct culturally competent interviews.
This section provides basic information about conducting an interview with an alleged victim of child maltreatment. It includes guidelines for the first responder to follow during the interview, as well as the types of questions that should be asked.
Before the Interview
The interview with the alleged victim should take place immediately after the allegations have been made, when possible.53 The first responder should prepare the child for the interview before it begins. Some techniques that may be used include:
- Having the first responder introduce herself and her role to the child
- Explaining the purpose of the interview in developmentally appropriate language
- Discussing confidentiality and its limits
- Explaining that it is okay for the child to say that he does not know the answer
- Communicating concern for the child's safety
- Allowing the child to practice answering open-ended questions.54
It is important to gain the trust of the child and establish a rapport prior to beginning the interview. The child may be more likely to share information if he trusts the first responder. To build trust, the first responder can begin an interview by talking about general topics, such as the child's favorite television show or a toy he likes.55 It also is a good idea to interview the child in a comfortable and secure environment, such as a child advocacy center or a private room at the child's school. Ideally, the alleged child victim interview will be conducted without the child's parent or other caretaker present in order to ensure that the child's statement is his own and not influenced by others. It may be necessary to reassure the child that the parent or caretaker is nearby and available if necessary or appropriate.
Although the first responder needs to establish trust with the child, it is important that she does not mislead the child about whether the information will be kept secret. The first responder should be open with the child about the limits of confidentiality so that the child does not feel betrayed later in the process.56 What this generally means is that anything the child tells the first responder that relates to an incident of alleged maltreatment must be disclosed to the proper authority. First responders should become familiar with confidentiality policies in their agencies and jurisdictions.
Some basic guidelines for conducting interviews with children are to:
- Avoid jumping to conclusions
- Be at the child's eye level (e.g., sitting on the floor with him), if possible
- Leave a comfortable space between the interviewer and the child
- Create a child-friendly environment (e.g., have toys available)
- Use body diagrams or dolls to help the child clarify body parts that are discussed
- Be mindful of responder's facial expressions and body language
- Minimize the use of yes or no and multiple-choice questions
- Follow up all closed-ended questions with open-ended questions (types of questions are discussed later in this chapter)
- Listen carefully and completely (i.e., do not rush the child)
- Assess the child's understanding of key concepts (e.g., being able to tell the truth, understanding timeframes), which will help to establish credibility as the interview proceeds into sensitive areas
- Reduce vocabulary problems by using the child's vocabulary, when appropriate, and clarifying any areas of confusion
- Avoid using double negatives (e.g., "So your father didn't not hit you with the belt?")
- Observe the child's nonverbal communication and body language
- Document the interviewer's and child's words carefully and completely, perhaps by audio- or videotaping the interview
- Be attuned to the developmental capabilities and limitations of the child as the interview progresses.57
During the interview, first responders should assess the child's statements for accuracy and for how they match other information or evidence that is collected. The accuracy of the interview may be influenced by:
- The child's age and developmental stage
- The child's understanding of events
- The child's emotional state
- The first responder's style and request for details
- The structure and nature of the questions.58
To ensure that facts are gathered in a way that will be admissible in court, the first responder should carefully control the interview. This means that the first responder's statements and body language should be neutral, alternative explanations for the child's statements should be explored thoroughly, and the interview should be documented in such a way that it can bear scrutiny in court.59
|Ways to Calm an Anxious Child|
|A first responder can use the following techniques to try to calm an anxious child:
Types of Interview Questions
The first responder should be aware of the types of questions used during the interview. Open-ended questions (e.g., "What happened to your arm?"), which allow the child to develop an answer that goes beyond yes or no, are often preferred during an interview. The goal of asking open-ended questions is to allow the child to tell the first responder, in his own words, what happened. The child's response is more credible when the first responder asks him open-ended questions. The standard open-ended question for all first responders should be, "What can you tell me about what happened?" The first responder can follow that up with, "Can you tell me more about that?"
Closed-ended questions (e.g., "Is your arm hurt?") tend to restrict the information that the child provides to a fixed set of responses, such as yes or no. Multiple-choice questions (e.g., "Were you hit one, two, or three times?") are a type of closed-ended question. Closed-ended questions can encourage young children to guess the answer even when they do not understand the question. They provide information to the child rather than the child providing the information. With multiple-choice questions in particular, none of the choices may be correct, but the child may choose one simply to please the first responder.61 Though not as preferred as open-ended questions, close-ended questions can still be used appropriately during an interview (e.g., at the end of an interview to clarify information provided or omitted by the child).
The first responder should not ask leading questions (e.g., "Did daddy hurt your arm?"). Direct questions or statements (e.g., "I see you have a mark on your arm.") may, however, be necessary at times to direct the child to provide more information. The first responder should follow every direct question or statement with open-ended probes, such as, "Tell me what happened," or "Who hurt your arm?" If the child responds that it was "his daddy" who hurt him, then the open-ended probe would be, "Can you tell me more about how daddy hurt your arm?" Additionally, when the child fails to mention important information, prompts may be necessary. For example, if the child uses a "family word" for something, such as using "the bad boy room" to mean the hallway closet, the first responder may need to clarify the statement by asking a question such as, "Where is the bad boy room?"62
End of the Interview
At the end of the interview, the first responder should thank the child for his time and praise him for working hard. The praise should be for the effort and not for the content of what was said. If the child is upset, the first responder should offer support and empathy. She can ask the child what he thought of the interview and can attempt to dispel any misperceptions. The first responder also should make sure that the child does not feel that what happened was his fault. Even if the child did not struggle or try to keep the abuse or neglect from happening or, in cases of sexual abuse, if he enjoyed the sexual activity, the first responder still needs to reassure the child that he is not at fault.63 In addition, the first responder should let the child know what the next steps will be.64 This will vary depending on the type of maltreatment and the particular child and family. Additionally, the first responder should make sure that the child is safe if the disclosure of information puts the child in jeopardy (i.e., the alleged perpetrator would further harm the child because of the disclosure).
|Investigating Sexual Abuse|
In 2008, 9.1 percent (69,184) of child maltreatment victims were sexually abused. Although sexual abuse victims may be of any age, older children are more likely to be victims. Additionally, almost two thirds of sexual abuse perpetrators were family members, with 27.1 percent being a parent, 8.8 percent being an unmarried partner of a parent, and 29.4 percent being another relative.65
In order to work effectively on sexual abuse cases, first responders should:
Working on sexual abuse cases can be very emotionally trying for first responders. Common responses include anger, disgust, and denial. First responders should not let their emotions affect the way they handle a case. They should remain objective and follow up on several theories. If first responders are not able to control their emotions, they should not be assigned to conduct interviews during a sexual abuse investigation.67
Investigating child sexual abuse cases presents extremely challenging circumstances for first responders because:
First responders should try to determine the following information during the child interview in sexual abuse cases:
Although a medical examination should be conducted later to look for signs of sexual abuse and to collect evidence, most child victims will not display physical signs of abuse. This may be due to delayed disclosure or because the nature of the abuse is not such that it would leave physical trauma (e.g., fondling, performing oral sex).69
|Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) in First Responders|
First responders who work on child maltreatment cases may be at risk of developing STS, which is a condition caused by indirect exposure to trauma through a firsthand account of a traumatic event (e.g., interviewing or witnessing a child who has been severely abused).70 STS is also known as vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue. The symptoms of those experiencing STS may be similar to the stress symptoms experienced by the direct victim, such as increased fatigue or illness, social withdrawal, difficulty sleeping, feelings of hopelessness, re-experiencing the event, anxiety, and sadness.71 Symptoms may be experienced in both their personal and professional lives. STS is different than what is commonly referred to as "burnout" as the latter is usually caused by work issues, such as long-term involvement in a nonsupportive work environment, large caseloads, and excessive paperwork.72
First responders who believe they are experiencing STS should consult with a mental health professional and/or seek other support. They can help prevent STS by maintaining a personal/professional life balance, practicing stress management, spending time with family and friends, and taking personal time. Agencies can assist first responders experiencing STS by destigmatizing the condition (e.g., promoting openness and discussion about it) and encouraging affected workers to seek support.73
Most children go through a series of normal developmental stages and changes. First responders should be aware of the developmental levels of children, particularly when conducting interviews, to ensure that they ask questions that can be understood by the children and have more context for the answers they receive. The developmental considerations that follow in this section for preschool-aged and young children and for older children and adolescents are based on the typical characteristics of children of those age ranges. Children, however, may move through developmental levels at different times. For example, a 14-year-old child, especially one who was maltreated, may be at a developmental level typically associated with a child who is 9 or 10 years old.
Preschool-aged and young children. The following are important considerations for interviewing children in this age range:
- Children's thinking tends to be very concrete, and their ability to think abstractly is still developing. Irony, metaphor, and analogy are beyond their grasp. Therefore, first responders should not assume that children understand all the concepts presented to them.
- Children generally do not organize their thinking or speech logically. Instead, they say whatever enters their mind with little censoring or consideration. Therefore, their narratives tend to be disjointed and rambling, resulting in the need for first responders to sort out relevant from irrelevant data. It generally is beyond young children's cognitive capacities to do this alone. First responders, however, should not ask them leading questions (e.g., "Isn't it true that your uncle hit you with his belt?").
- Children's understanding of space, distance, and time generally may not be logical or linear. Since they probably have not learned units of time measurement, their memory may not work chronologically. To help them place the time of an incident, first responders should use reference points, such as birthdays, holidays, summer, night, day, lunchtime, bedtime, television shows, and before and after school.
- Children generally are egocentric. They think the world revolves around them and relate all that happens to personal issues. These children usually do not think about what effect their actions will have on others, or they may think everything, including the maltreatment, is their fault.
- The attention span of children is limited. Long interviews often are not possible because these children cannot concentrate or sit in one place for long periods of time. First responders should be flexible, conducting several short sessions over a brief period of time.
- Many children are afraid to talk with an unfamiliar person without a parent present. First responders should work slowly to help children separate from the parent, when possible. If this process is difficult, the interview may need to begin with a nonoffending parent present, when appropriate, and work toward separate interviews at a later time once the child feels more comfortable. First responders should be flexible and follow the children's lead as long as it is within the protocol and the policies established by their agency.
- Children often are more compliant, suggestible, and easily confused than older children. First responders should be careful not to ask questions or to make statements that would influence the way children recount their situation.74
|Truth and Lying in Preschool-aged Children|
Issues of truth and lying are particularly complex in the preschool years. Children in this age group may tell lies to avoid a problem or punishment, to impress adults, or to get attention. Research varies, however, on whether children can manufacture stories based on information that they have not learned or experienced. Despite their occasional tendency to tell false stories, children in the preschool years usually know the difference between fact and fantasy and between the truth and a lie. Gentle probing and nonleading questions from first responders usually will help children reveal what is true and what is false. First responders also should keep in mind that children can become easily confused about what happened.75
Older children and adolescents. Children in this age range:
- Usually have a greater preference for a same-gender interviewer
- May be awkward or embarrass easily
- Encompass a wide variety of physical and emotional developmental levels (e.g., some may look like adults, whereas others look more like children)
- May be in a stage where they are asserting their independence from adults and authority figures; they may not want to talk about the incidents or to tell the whole story.76
|Interviewing Children in Cases of Domestic Violence|
If child maltreatment and domestic violence may be co-occurring, first responders should incorporate questions about domestic violence into the interview and assessment. First responders should keep in mind that children receive messages, either directly or indirectly, that domestic violence is a "family secret." Children often are uncomfortable and frightened of talking about it. Some children may be afraid that discussing the violence will create additional problems at home, such as additional violence or the separation of their parents. Other children may align with the abuser and attempt to provide protection by not discussing the violence or even by blaming the victim or themselves. It is critical to tell children that the violence is not their fault and that their feelings are normal. First responders should begin direct inquiry regarding domestic violence with a general statement, which may help the child feel more at ease. An example of this would be stating, "Sometimes when moms and dads (or boyfriends) fight, they get angry, sometimes even too angry. They may start to yell at each other or even hit each other. I know fights can be scary. I want to ask you a few questions about whether your parents fight and what you think about it. Would that be OK?"
First responders may want to consider asking alleged victims of domestic violence for suggestions on interviewing the children about it in order to have an initial understanding of the children's likely attitude or behavior. They should keep in mind, however, that caretakers often underestimate the effects that domestic violence has on their children.77 First responders should assist the children and, whenever possible, the nonoffending parents in developing positive and effective methods to protect themselves. Where appropriate, safety plans need to include tips for children, such as what to do and who to contact for help in domestic violence situations. See Appendix I, Domestic Violence Exposure Assessment, for recommendations on interviewing children who may be affected by domestic violence.
Culturally Competent Child Interviews
Children who have been abused or neglected may suffer from trauma, may have been threatened into keeping secrets, and may feel frightened and intimidated by the entire interview process.78 When language and cultural differences enter the mix, achieving enough rapport to elicit full and accurate information may seem nearly impossible.79 The following are tips for conducting a culturally competent interview with a child:
- Gather information about the child's background before conducting the interview, if possible. Answers to the following questions will help the first responder understand the extent to which the child is rooted in his culture and how much of an adjustment needs to be made in the standard interviewing process.
- What language or languages are spoken at home?
- What language does the child prefer to speak with siblings and friends?
- Is the child an immigrant or a child of an immigrant? If so, from where, and what were the circumstances of the immigration?
- Who lives at the home? Who else stays there?
- What is the child's religion? How observant is the child's family?
- Are the members of the family acculturating at different rates? If so, is it leading to conflict?
- Select a neutral setting for the interview. Although this may not be possible for the first responder, she should consider conducting the interview in a place of worship, a school, or some other place familiar to the child. If possible, law enforcement officers should be dressed in plain clothes because many members of immigrant groups do not see the police as their allies.
- Build rapport and establish trust. To gain trust, the first responder should explain her role, credentials, and experience carefully. The first responder should be clear about the purpose of the conversation and explain it in simple terms and without professional jargon. Language confusion will be more acute and more frequent when the family's native language is not English. In addition, depending on its culture, the family may trust certain professionals and not others (e.g., trust a doctor or nurse more than a social worker or law enforcement officer).
- Express empathy and warmth. Some Spanish-speaking cultures, for example, view professionals from the United States as cold, disinterested, and rejecting. The warmer the connection between the first responder and the child, the more comfortable the child will be in correcting the first responder if the first responder makes a mistake, such as providing inaccurate information about the incident during the interview. Also, the child tends to be more forthcoming with information.
- Audiotape or videotape the interview. When an interpreter is used, an audiotape or videotape of the interview should be made. This record of the interview will be helpful should the translation of certain words be questioned in court.80
The first responder should also keep in mind that even though she may expect the child to reveal sensitive information, personal matters may be discussed only indirectly, if at all, in the child's culture.
|Factors to Consider When Interviewing Native American Children|
When working with Native American children and families about possible child maltreatment, CPS caseworkers should ensure that they understand and follow the regulations set forth in the Indian Child Welfare Act. Additionally, first responders should keep the following in mind:
For additional information about working with Native American children and families, visit the National Indian Child Welfare Association website at http://www.nicwa.org, and Child Welfare Information Gateway at http://www.childwelfare.gov/systemwide/cultural/families/indian.cfm and http://www.childwelfare.gov/management/training/curricula/caseworkers/topical/amer_indian.cfm.
Interviewing Children with Disabilities
Children with disabilities are more likely to be abused or neglected than children who do not have disabilities and are also less likely to report their maltreatment.82 When interviewing children with disabilities, first responders should recognize and understand the children's unique characteristics, competencies, and limitations.83 As part of their normal training, first responders can familiarize themselves with various types of disabilities and how they may affect interviews and other areas of the response. If possible and if time permits, first responders should also gather information about the individual child prior to the interview. This information may include whether the child:
- Uses sign language, wears a hearing aid, or reads lips
- Is at a developmental level different from his age
- Has problems focusing or paying attention
- Uses a wheelchair or other adaptive equipment
- Has impaired or unusual speech
- Needs to be accompanied by a support person.84
Although children with disabilities may have certain difficulties providing information about suspected maltreatment, they can provide valuable information. First responders can obtain useful and accurate information by keeping the following in mind during the interview:
- Use simpler language and shorter sentences, but do not necessarily treat them like younger children or babies
- Recognize that children with disabilities may have various levels of capabilities across different areas (e.g., they may be developmentally delayed with language but have age-typical cognitive abilities)
- Use mostly open-ended questions in the beginning, as is best with all child interviews
- Be especially careful about using yes/no questions or asking the same question repeatedly because children with disabilities may be less assertive or feel more of a need to be compliant or obedient.85
First responders should interview the alleged victims' siblings in order to:
First responders should interview siblings using the same sensitivity and with similar styles of questions (mostly open-ended) as used in the interview of the alleged victim. First responders also should evaluate the objectivity of the siblings.86
After interviewing the alleged victim of child maltreatment, the first responder, when possible, should proceed to interview the adults in the home or wherever the alleged maltreatment occurred or was reported. (Throughout this section, the word adult is used to signify parents, caregivers, or other adults who may be of interest in the case.) The first responder should begin by interviewing the nonoffending adults and then the adults suspected of the maltreatment. The offending or the nonoffending adult may not be a parent, but a relative, friend, neighbor, boyfriend, or girlfriend. Additionally, an adult who initially is not suspected of being an offender may be suspected at a later time. The first responder should keep in mind that approximately 80 percent of offenders are parents, but this should not preclude the first responder from considering other adults in the investigations.87 Exhibit 3-3 provides statistics on the types of relationships child maltreatment offenders have to their victims.
Offenders by Relationship to Victims, 200888
Interviewing Nonoffending Adults
In cases of alleged child maltreatment in which the maltreatment took place between one adult and the child without the knowledge or the participation of the other adults, the nonoffending adult may be a good source of information. The primary purpose of these interviews is to:
- Find out what, if anything, the adult knows about the alleged maltreatment
- Gather information related to the risk of maltreatment and the safety of the child
- Gather information regarding family strengths or protective factors
- Determine the adult's capacity to protect the child.89
The first responder should interview the nonoffending adult as soon as possible after the allegations have been made so that the statements will not be affected by contact with the alleged abuser. The first responder should provide the nonoffending adult with basic information about the allegations without offering all the details. If there is evidence corroborating the child's allegations, the first responder should let the nonoffending adult know that she believes the child. The first responder should then explain to the nonoffending adult the process for the investigation and emphasize the importance of gathering information and evidence. Throughout this discussion, the first responder should note whether the adult appears to believe the child and for whom the nonoffending adult expresses concern (the child or the alleged abuser).90
The following are basic questions that the first responder should ask nonoffending adults:
- What happened?
- How did the maltreatment happen?
- Who maltreated the child?
- Who was with the child?
- Who saw the maltreatment happen?
- Where did the maltreatment happen?
- Where were the other household members?
- When did the maltreatment occur?
Appendix J, Interviewing Nonoffending Adults, provides additional questions that the first responder can ask nonoffending adults in the home.
Interviewing the Alleged Offender
The primary goal of interviewing the alleged offender is to gather as much information as possible that verifies, clarifies, or refutes the maltreatment allegations. The first responder should interview the alleged offender last. This allows the first responder to question the suspect with information gathered through interviews with the alleged victim and others.91 Before the interview, the first responder should gather additional information about the alleged offender and the family in relation to the risk to and the safety of the child. This information, coupled with the information collected during interviews with the alleged victim and nonoffending adults, will help the first responder develop a more complete picture of the situation.
During the interview, the alleged offender should be presented with the allegations and with specific information that was relayed during interviews with the victim and others. First responders use various methods to elicit a confession or gather additional information. For example, the first responders could appeal to the suspect's sense of loyalty to his family or to the suspect's love for the child (e.g., "Telling us what happened that day is the best way to help your son.").92 The first responder should evaluate the alleged perpetrator's reaction to allegations of maltreatment, as well as to the child and the child's condition.
If the alleged offender is unable to provide information to refute the allegations, law enforcement or CPS will attempt to obtain a confession or an admission. If the alleged offender confesses, the law enforcement officer should follow the appropriate guidelines for documenting the confession and for arresting the suspect. If it is a CPS worker who obtains the admission, law enforcement may be called, depending on the severity of the maltreatment. If the suspect does not confess, it may be useful to offer him the chance to take a polygraph examination. Most importantly, the first responder should follow agency or department protocols and procedures when making these decisions.93 Exhibit 3-4 presents a checklist for conducting interviews with alleged offenders.
The first responder may need to ask follow-up questions to clarify what occurred if the alleged offender describes any of the following:
- A disclosure by the alleged offender that maltreatment did take place
- No explanation for an injury or suspect incident
- An explanation for an injury that is inconsistent with either the severity or the type of injury observed
- Different or changing explanations for an injury or incident
- A delay in obtaining medical treatment for an injury.94
Before questioning a suspect in custody, a law enforcement officer generally reads the suspect his Miranda rights, which state:
The purpose of the Miranda warning is to protect an individual's Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Information provided by a suspect is inadmissible at trial if those statements are made without a Miranda warning being provided before questioning or if the questioning continues after the suspect indicates that he wants an attorney present. A law enforcement officer does not have to read a suspect his Miranda rights, however, during "noncustodial" interviews (i.e., the suspect is not under arrest). If the law enforcement officer does not have to read the suspect his Miranda rights, the interview tends to be less hostile. Miranda rights only apply to statements made to law enforcement, not statements to CPS workers or EMTs.
Gathering and documenting accurate information from the alleged victim and from other family members and collateral sources are imperative to the success of a child abuse or neglect case. Inaccuracies in children's statements, as recorded by the first responder, may be used to discredit the children later. Also, adult victims often are given time to review their statements before signing them to correct inaccuracies; child victims, however, usually are not given that opportunity. The first responder taking statements from an alleged child victim should attempt to clarify and understand the accuracy of the statements. Properly documenting the information, however, can sometimes be difficult. Conducting interviews and writing down questions and responses may be cumbersome and distracting to those being interviewed, as well as to the first responder conducting the interviews. Additionally, child victims often communicate their maltreatment in fragmented and disjointed sentences.
The following guidelines are recommended for documenting interviews:
- Follow the agency's or department's protocols
- Give the child permission to correct statements
- Document both the questions and answers, when possible
- Listen carefully to answers
- Read answers back to the child for clarification, when appropriate
- Write notes clearly and concisely
- Quote direct statements, when possible
- Videotape or photograph the crime scene to confirm accuracy
- Try to have an investigative team of one interviewer and one note taker.
If the goals of all first response agencies are to be achieved, EMTs, law enforcement officers, and CPS caseworkers should work with each other to eliminate any unnecessary duplication of effort, to promote proper and expeditious collection and preservation of evidence, and to develop a coordinated system for identifying and investigating reports of child maltreatment. This is best accomplished through a team approach in which professionals share information, assign investigative tasks, and participate in a collaborative decision-making process.96 The use of multidisciplinary teams for the investigation of child maltreatment has become an effective approach in various jurisdictions across the country. There are many benefits to this type of approach, including:
To facilitate this process, the first responders' agencies should develop protocols or memoranda of understanding (MOUs) that guide the investigative process and that specify timeframes and roles and responsibilities of the professionals involved in child protection. In jurisdictions where there is a lack of coordination among professionals involved in the child protection system, there often are conflicting opinions as to who should conduct the interview of the alleged offender during the investigation. For example, in cases of severe child physical abuse and sexual abuse, law enforcement may prefer that CPS not interview the alleged offender prior to law enforcement's involvement. However, a CPS investigator may be the first and only responder to a case because the law enforcement agency cannot respond immediately or is not available to conduct the interview of the alleged offender for several days. MOUs can assist collaborating agencies in determining the roles and responsibilities of each. For more information on MOUs, refer to Appendix K, Memorandum of Understanding.
First responders should be aware of the potential barriers to a multidisciplinary approach. A review of the literature on co-involvement of law enforcement and CPS in child welfare cases found that barriers include concerns about the other's investigation techniques and protocols and about the privacy and confidentiality of families.98 To help establish a team approach, first responders should have a clear understanding of each other's roles, including the limitations of these roles, as well as the expertise that each profession can bring to the case.99 They also should trust and respect one another and understand that they are all working toward the common goal of keeping children and families safe.
For more information about agencies and communities working together to prevent and respond to cases of child maltreatment, see Community Partnerships: Improving the Response to Child Maltreatment.
Observing the Scene
When gathering information for the case, the first responder should observe the identified child victim, the other family members or adults, and the environment, including the scene of the alleged abuse. Everything that is viewed, heard, smelled, or otherwise observed at the scene is important information that must be documented. Specific areas for observation are:
- The physical condition of the child, including any observable effects of maltreatment
- The emotional status of the child, including mannerisms, signs of fear, and developmental status
- The reactions of the parents or caregivers to the first responder's concerns
- The emotional and behavioral status of the parents or caregivers during the interview process
- The interactions between family members, including verbal and body language
- The physical status of the home or site of maltreatment, including cleanliness, structure, safety hazards, signs of excessive alcohol use, and signs of illicit drug use (e.g., drug paraphernalia, evidence of a methamphetamine lab)
- The climate of the neighborhood, including the level of violence or drug use, and the accessibility of transportation, and methods of communication (e.g., cell phone coverage).100
The first responder should note in her report any observations of these circumstances.
Immersion burns occur when a child is placed in extremely hot liquid. These burns have a "water line," or sharp demarcation border. Symmetric burns with distinct edges (e.g., burns of the same height on both legs) are very suspicious. Doughnut-shaped burns can occur when a child is forced to sit in a bathtub of hot water. This causes parts of the body, usually the buttocks, to rest on the bottom of the tub, where they will not burn. The diagram illustrates the appearance and cause of doughnut-shaped burns.
First responders who suspect a child has an immersion burn immediately should begin to gather information and evidence from the scene. First responders should take 360-degree (front, sides, and back) photographs of, or even videotape, the victim so the burn pattern can be documented and be evaluated by medical experts. They also should interview the caregiver suspected of immersing the child and ask questions such as:
If possible, first responders should videotape the scene of the immersion, preferably with the suspect showing his exact actions. If that is not possible, first responders still should videotape or photograph the scene. It also is important to document the hot water heater settings; the measurements of the tub, the sink, or any other water container in which the child was placed; and the temperature of the hot water when running. For more information on burns, see Appendix E, Signs of Possible Physical Abuse, and Appendix F, Distinguishing Physical Abuse From Nonintentional Injury, or visit http://www.ncjrs.org/pdffiles/91190-6.pdf.
Collecting Physical Evidence
The first responder also plays an important role in the collection and preservation of physical evidence. After ensuring that the child is protected from additional harm or injury, the first responder should ensure that the area in and around the scene is contained and that evidence is collected and documented according to agency and department protocols. Some evidence, such as semen, must be collected immediately and in a way that avoids contamination, destruction, or deterioration of quality.
Obtaining as much physical evidence as possible is especially important if a case goes to trial. In maltreatment cases, there often may not be any witnesses, and the focus of the case may need to be on the testimonies of the alleged victim and alleged perpetrator and the available evidence. In cases of neglect, physical evidence may be especially difficult to collect. In these cases, the first responder should observe the scene for any unhealthy conditions in the home, a lack of food, or unclean or hazardous materials. Additionally, if enough evidence is collected, it may even eliminate the need for the child to testify, which can be a traumatic event.
A lack of physical evidence does not mean that the allegation is necessarily false. However, physical evidence that corroborates a victim's statement can enhance a case. The first responder is most likely to obtain physical evidence if she acts quickly and does not give the alleged offender a chance to destroy or tamper with the evidence. Even if the suspect is in custody, it is important to act quickly because he may be able to have someone else destroy the evidence.101
|Types of Evidence|
Physical evidence, which is essentially an object or part of an object, is just one of several types. Other types include:
Every incident of neglect, physical abuse, or sexual abuse of a child occurs at a specific location. The first responder must realize that she is standing in a potential crime scene and should obtain or make note of any evidence. The following may be useful evidence in the investigation of cases of suspected child maltreatment:
- Broken items or holes in the wall
- Stains from blood or semen (visible with a black light)
- Minute evidence, such as hair, fibers, blood, or semen
- Lures, such as toys or games
- Sexual aids, such as lubricants, dildos, and vibrators
- Drugs or alcohol
- Adult or child pornography or other sexually explicit material in print or on a computer (e.g., letters, diaries, books that discuss sexual activity with children)
- Cameras and film processing equipment
- An address book containing the alleged victim's information
- Contents of trash cans
- Bills, bank records, and receipts, which may be used to show items that were purchased by the suspect for the victim
- Phone records
- Weapons or other implements used to abuse a child (e.g., belts, cords, coat hangers, other instruments matching the injuries inflicted)
- Other items noted by the alleged victim or the witnesses during the interviews.103
For many child maltreatment cases, interview testimony may be the only evidence available to the prosecution. Additional evidence may exist, but may be overlooked during the investigation. In child maltreatment cases, law enforcement often underutilizes search warrants as a means of obtaining additional evidence.104 When law enforcement officers obtain and execute search warrants properly, they can discover important evidence and improve the defensibility of the evidence in court. The primary use of search warrants is to obtain physical evidence from the crime scene or from a suspected offender's house, vehicle, or other setting. Law enforcement also can use search warrants to obtain evidence from the body of the alleged perpetrator. For example, if a child noticed a mole, birthmark, or tattoo on the suspect, law enforcement can use a search warrant to photograph these marks. In addition, law enforcement can use search warrants to collect DNA evidence from the alleged perpetrator. A law enforcement officer may conduct a warrantless search, however, in certain circumstances, such as if he finds an injured or deceased child and is looking for other victims or the perpetrator, or if he is ensuring public and officer safety.105
To gather enough information to establish probable cause to obtain a search warrant, the law enforcement officer may need to obtain consent to access the crime scene and collect "plain view" evidence. The plain view doctrine states that an officer may collect evidence when the officer has lawful access to the scene, the object is in plain view, and its incriminating nature is immediately apparent.106 The law enforcement officer should attempt to gain written consent from the appropriate person to view the area and, once received, ask family members or other witnesses to give a tour of the scene and provide information such as routines, sleeping arrangements, and disciplinary methods. If consent is not given or is withdrawn, the first responder should discontinue the search.107
The evidence seized through the use of search warrants can be essential for corroborating the victim's statements. It also is advisable to photograph or to videotape the location of a search prior, during, and after the search is conducted. This is important for protecting investigators from later claims that they damaged property or planted evidence and for documenting where certain pieces of evidence were found.108
Although CPS caseworkers are often key personnel in child maltreatment responses and investigations, they do not have the same authority as a law enforcement officer to enter a home or conduct a search. Caseworker authority varies by jurisdiction and agency, but the following are common elements:
Assessing Safety and Developing a Safety Plan
When the first responder arrives at a scene of possible child maltreatment, her first responsibility is to ensure the safety of the alleged victim. She should only proceed once the child's immediate safety is established. The first responder needs to make decisions throughout the response and investigation about whether the child is safe and what plans need to be made to ensure the child's safety. If the child is at imminent risk of being harmed, the first responder should develop, with the help of the child and family, if appropriate, a safety plan. For EMTs and law enforcement, this will mean involving CPS.
Assessing Child Safety
A child is considered unsafe when he is at imminent risk of serious harm. There are two key points during the initial assessment or investigation at which the first responder should evaluate the child's safety. The first is during the initial contact with the child and family. At that point, the first responder should decide whether the child will be safe during the initial assessment or investigation by asking herself, "Is the child in danger right now?" The first responder should assess the family situation, the caregiver's behavior or condition, and the child's condition, including emotions and physical circumstances, for significant and immediate safety threats. Examples of these threats include currently hitting or otherwise hurting the child, head and face injuries, premeditated maltreatment, bizarre cruelty, young children left unsupervised, or the parent being intoxicated or unable to perform parental duties.109 If the child is at immediate risk, a non-CPS first responder should contact CPS; all first responders should follow applicable protocols for the removal of either the offender or the child from the home.
The second point at which the first responder should conduct a safety assessment is at the end of the interview process. At this point, the first responder should evaluate the information and determine if the child is safe. When assessing the safety of the child, the first responder should:
- Identify the behaviors or conditions that increase concern for the child's safety and consider how they affect each child in the family
- Identify the behaviors or conditions (e.g., strengths, resiliencies, support, resources) that may protect the child
- Examine the relationships among the risk factors and determine if, when combined, they increase safety concerns
- Determine whether family members or other community partners are able to address safety concerns without CPS intervention
- Consider the services required to address the specific behaviors or conditions for each risk factor directly affecting the child's safety
- Identify who is available (e.g., CPS, other community partners) to provide the needed services or interventions in the frequency, timeframe, and duration required by the family to protect the child
- Evaluate the family's willingness to accept—and its ability to use—the intervention or services at the level needed to protect the child.110
Sometimes services or interventions are not available or accessible at the level needed or within the timeframe necessary to protect the child, or the caregivers are unable or unwilling to accept the services. In these cases, the first responder should consider whether the offending caregiver should be asked or be required to leave the home and if the nonoffending caregiver can protect the child. If not, the first responder should consider whether out-of-home care and court intervention are needed to ensure the child's protection. In either case, the first responder should develop a safety plan for the child.
First responders must be aware of their surroundings when responding to possible cases of child maltreatment and ensure that they are safe. See Appendix L, Home Visit Safety Tips, for information about enhancing safety during response and investigation.
Developing a Safety Plan
When there is an imminent risk of moderate to serious harm to the child, the first responder should develop a safety plan with the child and, if appropriate, with the family. The plan should include interventions that:
- Have a direct and immediate impact on one or more of the risk factors determined during the assessment to cause the child to be unsafe, such as removal of the alleged perpetrator
- Are accessible to the family
- Are available in the frequency and for the duration with which they are needed to control the risk factors
- Fill the gaps in the caregiver's protective factors and strengths in order to ensure the child's protection.111
When possible, the first responder should conduct the safety assessment jointly with the nonoffending caregiver and the child, if age appropriate. By jointly developing a safety plan, the first responder and the caregiver can assess the feasibility of the caregiver carrying out the safety plan.
|Reasonable Efforts to Keep a Family Together|
When CPS workers identify safety interventions and develop safety plans, they are required to make "reasonable efforts" to keep families together, when safe and appropriate. This means that CPS workers must exhaust all the less intrusive methods of ensuring child safety before moving to more intrusive methods. The sequence of least intrusive safety interventions is:
Most States indicate that when certain factors are present in a case, they constitute enough of a threat to a child's safety that reasonable efforts are not required to prevent placement. These factors may include:
First responders should become familiar with the exceptions that apply in their jurisdictions.
For more information on conducting assessments and investigations, see Child Protective Services: A Guide for Caseworkers.
Understanding the Next Steps
When a report of child maltreatment is filed, possibly by a first responder, CPS makes several decisions. First, CPS must decide if the report meets the statutory criteria for child abuse or neglect, which may vary by jurisdiction. Then, it must investigate to ascertain if the maltreatment can be substantiated. CPS will interview the child if he is old enough to respond to questions, even if he had already been interviewed by another first responder. CPS will then contact the family and others who may have additional information about the incident. CPS typically will make one of two findings—substantiated or unsubstantiated. A substantiated finding means that there is sufficient evidence to prove that an incident of abuse or neglect occurred. A finding of unsubstantiated means that there is insufficient evidence to conclude that a child was abused or neglected, but it does not always mean that maltreatment did not occur. Some States may have a third category—inconclusive, unable to determine, or unfounded. CPS also determines if the child is safe in the home and, if not, what the least intrusive interventions are to ensure the child's safety. Finally, CPS determines if there is a risk of maltreatment occurring in the future. If a risk of abuse or neglect exists, CPS must offer or provide services to reduce the risk. Exhibit 3-5 provides an overview of the CPS process.
Overview of the CPS Process
In some States, the court system may become involved, particularly if the child is removed from the home. A juvenile or family court usually is responsible for cases involving child maltreatment. In cases of sexual abuse, extreme physical abuse, or death, however, complaints increasingly are filed in criminal court. In some instances, the first responder may be asked to appear in court as a witness. This is discussed in more depth in Chapter 4, Testifying in Court.
|The Role of First Responders in Investigating Child Fatalities|
When a child fatality occurs, the role of law enforcement is to investigate the cause of death, to determine if a crime took place and, if so, who is responsible. It is important that all sudden and unexplained deaths be investigated so that innocent people can be cleared of suspicion or any guilty individuals can be caught. CPS often is involved in child fatality investigations when a parent or other household member is a suspect. The role of CPS in child fatality cases is to help determine if child maltreatment was involved, to determine who was responsible for the maltreatment, and to ensure the safety of other children in the household. Law enforcement, however, should be the lead agency in child fatality investigations.112
Medical personnel are required to contact law enforcement immediately if they suspect that a child fatality may have resulted from child maltreatment, but they should not let the parents know of their suspicions. (For more information about which individuals are required to report suspected child maltreatment, visit Child Welfare Information Gateway at http://www.childwelfare.gov/systemwide/laws_policies/state/.) Medical personnel also should take note of any statements made by the parents or other caretakers and pass these along to law enforcement officers.
It is important that first responders be both thorough and sensitive when conducting investigations of child fatalities. The child may have died accidentally or as a result of a medical condition, and it is important not to traumatize the parents further. First responders should balance this sensitivity, however, with the need to conduct a thorough investigation. Law enforcement should approach every child fatality investigation with one of the hypotheses being that the child was the victim of maltreatment.113 This will help to ensure that evidence is collected properly and that a thorough investigation is conducted. First responders can explain to the parents that causes of death can only be determined through an investigation and that the investigation, including postmortem examination and clinical history reviews, will help them understand how their child died and how that may affect others in their family (e.g., if there is a genetic medical condition).114
When investigating child fatalities, first responders should keep in mind several important issues, including:
In cases of an infant death, first responders should take note of the position of the infant, marks on the body, body temperature, the type of crib and any defects, the amount and placement of clothing and bedding, the room's temperature, the type of ventilation and heating, and the reaction of the caregivers.116 This information can help determine whether the infant death was caused by child maltreatment, a medical condition, an accident, or is unexplained (i.e., sudden infant death syndrome).
For child fatalities that lack witnesses, it is important to establish that the suspect was the only person with the child at the time the injury occurred and that the injury was not accidental. Additionally, in cases in which a child may have died from lack of supervision, it is important to obtain evidence that establishes that the caretaker did not provide reasonable supervision and that this lack of supervision resulted in the death of the child.117 First responders also should take into account the possibility that another child in the house caused the victim's death.118
In addition to a criminal investigation into the child's death, most States have some type of child fatality review team to examine deaths that occurred or may have occurred due to child maltreatment. Child deaths also may be reviewed by internal agency committees, coroners' inquests, or the courts. Child welfare workers who have a case that is reviewed may experience increased stress caused by factors such as re-exposure to the traumatic event, the intensity of the review, and the critical nature of the inquiry (i.e., perceiving the agency or team as finding fault with how they responded to the case).119
For additional information on investigating child fatalities, visit http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/209764.pdf. For more information about investigating the death of an infant, see Appendix H, Criteria for Distinguishing SIDS from Fatal Child Maltreatment.
Appendix M, Case Studies, provides examples of how first responders can respond to cases of physical neglect, environmental neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. Appendix D, Reference Guide for Responding to Cases of Suspected Child Maltreatment, is a handy format that highlights many of the topics covered in this manual to Appendix D.
This material may be freely reproduced and distributed. However, when doing so, please credit Child Welfare Information Gateway.