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Investigation of Child Sexual Abuse
This chapter describes the role of Child Protective Services (CPS) in the investigation of cases of sexual abuse, the structure of the investigation, and risk assessment in child sexual abuse. Specific techniques for interviewing children and making a determination about the validity of an allegation are presented in the next chapter.
The Role of CPS
CPS is the local authority, housed in public social services agencies, responsible for investigation of and intervention in cases of suspected sexual abuse. Its mandate to protect children can be found in Federal and State legislation. Typically, CPS is only responsible for intervening in those situations in which the offender is in a caretaking role for the child. Law enforcement agencies are usually responsible for the investigation of cases involving offenders in noncaretaking roles. However, CPS may also become involved in situations in which the offender is a nonfamily member but the child's caretaker fails to protect the child from the offender.
Health care, mental health, and education professionals are mandated in most States to make a timely report of suspected maltreatment to CPS. Other persons may report.*
Upon receiving a report, CPS conducts an investigation, within a specified time frame (typically within 24 or 48 hours or up to 5 days, depending on the State). The goal of CPS is to determine whether or not maltreatment has occurred and is likely to occur in the future and whether the child's safety can be ensured in the home. In forming conclusions about maltreatment and risk, the worker receives input from other professionals and from non-professionals (e.g., parents, children, neighbors, relatives), but the final decisions lie with CPS.
If the child is considered in danger, CPS takes steps to ensure the child's safety. CPS's first goal is to ensure the child's protection within his/her own home. When the child's safety cannot be ensured in the home, intervention may involve removal of the child and placement with a relative or a foster family, or it may entail getting the offender out of the home. The latter strategy is preferred in cases of sexual abuse. Actions resulting in removal usually require the intervention of the juvenile or family court. The reader is referred to another manual in this series, Working With the Courts in Child Protection.
Sexual abuse cases are handled somewhat differently from other referrals to CPS. Many State statutes mandate collaboration between CPS and law enforcement when the report is of sexual abuse. This often results in joint investigation and always in sharing of information. The mandate of the law enforcement agency is not to help families with their problems but to gather evidence toward the prosecution of offenders. As a consequence, the CPS goal of keeping families intact or family reunification may be compromised in sexual abuse cases. This is not necessarily a negative outcome. As discussed in the final chapter, offenders vary in their treatability.
Another way in which sexual abuse cases are likely to challenge the child protection system is with regard to the system's expectation that intervention will be short term. CPS is structured to conduct crisis intervention. In general, however, intrafamilial sexual abuse is not a short-term problem, but rather one that requires extended intervention.
The Structure of the Investigation
Communities vary considerably in how they structure investigations of sexual abuse. However, generally there are four types of professionals involved—CPS caseworkers, law enforcement officers, physicians, and mental health professionals. Other professionals may be involved as well.
Communities also vary in the extent to which their investigation is well organized and coordinated. Some communities are fortunate enough to have multidisciplinary team composed of members actively involved in the investigation or professionals who serve as consultants to frontline staff. In other communities, the roles of CPS, law enforcement, and health care providers are well integrated, but the involvement of other professionals and the interface with the court are not well articulated. In still others, unfortunately, the investigation is haphazard and poorly organized so that professionals are not aware of what others are doing or are working at cross purposes. Although there is considerable variability by community as to who does what and, to a lesser extent, when it is done, there nevertheless are specific components to a good investigation.
Discussions of data gathering from the referral source, the child interview, the medical examination, the interview with the nonoffending parent, and the interview with the alleged offender follow. These discussions assume a case of intrafamilial sexual abuse in which there is only one offender, with the mother the nonoffending parent and the father figure the offender. Obviously, adjustments need to be made for other configurations.
Gathering Information From the Referral Source
The investigative process usually begins with gathering information from the reporting party. The interview with the reporter should include an exploration of what the child has said or done that the reporter thinks indicates possible sexual abuse, his/her reactions to this information, and the reporter's knowledge of any other parties with relevant information.
The Child Interview
There are several issues related to the child interview that should be determined before it takes place. These include where it should occur, who should be present, how information from the interview will be recorded, and how many interviews are needed.
The interview should occur in a location the child perceives as a "safe place." In most instances, this will not be the child's home, but it may be the child's school, a therapist's office, a child interview room at the CPS office or police station, or a Children's Advocacy Center. Originating in Huntsville, Alabama, this center is a child-oriented facility developed specifically for interviewing and providing services to sexually abused children. It represents a successful strategy for addressing the often fragmented and potentially alienating approach to service delivery that characterizes how many communities handle child sexual abuse. This model has been replicated in other communities. When used for interviewing children, usually specialized facilities are equipped with one-way mirrors, so that the interview can be observed or videotaped.
As mentioned above, investigations may be conducted conjointly by CPS and law enforcement. In some communities, CPS is responsible for the child interview, and law enforcement interviews the alleged offender. In other communities, both are present at the child interview, although only one usually conducts the interview. Alternatively, one of the investigators (and relevant others, such as a mental health expert or an assistant prosecutor) may be behind the one-way mirror. Having more than one person present during the child interview may eliminate the need for multiple interviews.
Some record should be made of information gathered during the child interview. This may be a videotape, an audiotape, or notes. Notes are more easily taken by someone who is not interviewing the child. Each of these methods of data gathering has its strengths and weaknesses.65
The number of interview sessions usually depends on who is conducting the investigation. In the majority of cases, CPS conducts one interview. If no confirming evidence emerges and there is no other supporting evidence, the CPS worker will usually deny the case after a single interview. Similarly, hospital-based programs that conduct investigations for law enforcement and CPS conduct a medical exam and a single interview, unless the interview is inconclusive or there are confirming medical findings and no disclosure. In contrast, mental health experts assessing children at the request of mandated agencies or the courts often conduct several interviews. In the latter instances, the child is usually in a protective environment.
It is usually optimal to interview the child before interviewing the parents. The rationale for this order is that, in most cases, the child's statements and behavior are the primary means for determining whether sexual abuse occurred. Consequently, having some indication of the likelihood of sexual abuse and, if likely, knowing its specifics may be useful in later interviews with the nonoffending parent and alleged offender.
As part of the investigation, it is important that all children, both males and females in the target victim's family or abusive circumstance (e.g., day care center) are interviewed. There are two reasons for this. First, offenders generally have multiple victims, not a single one.66 Second, even if other children are not victims, they may be witnesses.
A question of strategy is whether, in situations in which there are potentially multiple victims, children should be interviewed separately or as a group. Disclosures may be inhibited or facilitated by either practice. For example, a child may be helped to describe sexual abuse by the presence of an older, more forthcoming sibling. Alternatively, the presence of siblings may reinforce the family prohibition against telling secrets. An additional consideration is that a more sophisticated understanding of the abuse and its significance may be obtained by observing the interaction among children. Because of real or apparent issues regarding contagion, children should initially be interviewed separately, with conjoint interviews occurring later.
The Medical Examination
Views regarding the advisability of a medical examination have changed considerably in recent years, largely because of a perspective offered by Sgroi.67 Professionals had many reservations about the appropriateness of a medical exam for sexually abused children because of its potential to retraumatize the child and because the probability of supportive medical findings was generally remote. However, Sgroi advocated the use of a medical exam as a context to assure the child and her/his caretakers that she/he was undamaged and intact. Thus, negative findings become positive.
Today, most professionals working in sexual abuse adhere to Sgroi's viewpoint. Thus, the child should receive a medical examination at some point during the investigation. Generally, physicians only see the necessity of an immediate exam when the abuse is quite recent and/or there is concern about injury or disease. Otherwise the exam can be postponed for a few hours until there is an experienced health care professional available with sufficient time available to conduct the genital exam and necessary tests in the context of a general physical exam.68
The Interview With the Nonoffending Parent
The investigative or assessment interview with the mother has several purposes:
- to gather additional information about the likelihood of the sexual abuse;
- to determine whether the mother is protective and supportive of the victim;
- in some instances, to ascertain if the mother has had a role in prompting the child to make or recant an allegation; and
- to understand the causes or dynamics leading to the sexual abuse.
Mothers may provide information that either supports or refutes the child's allegation. However, as noted earlier, the child interview is the primary context for gathering information to determine the likelihood of the sexual abuse. The typical initial reaction of mothers confronted with an allegation of sexual abuse is denial, both psychological and actual.
It is important for the investigator to evaluate carefully a mother's protests that "this couldn't have happened because the child is never alone with the alleged offender," that "the child has a long history of telling lies," or that "the child is making this allegation because she is jealous of the new baby" in light of the mother's propensity to disbelieve or deny. Nevertheless, there can be circumstances in which mothers provide information that rules out sexual abuse.
Many mothers do believe their child's allegation and provide corroborating information. There are also situations in which doubting mothers corroborate the child's statements, even if inadvertently.
A major purpose of the initial interview with the mother is to assess her ability to provide support for the child. Mothers whose children have been sexually victimized by someone who is close to them, such as a spouse, are placed in a very difficult position. Often they have no inkling of the abuse until confronted by a professional. Mothers who are consciously aware of the victimization and condone or accept it are extremely rare. However, some mothers ignore signs of sexual abuse, for a variety of reasons, or are preoccupied with matters other than their children's well-being.
As already noted, initial denial is common. However, a mother can decide her child's well-being takes priority and provide protection, even as she struggles to integrate the allegations with her perceptions of the alleged offender and the child. Mothers should not be disparaged because they require time and sometimes treatment to believe their children have been sexually abused. Only when denial persists for months in the face of compelling evidence, and the victim is blamed, should the mother be considered unworkable.
The following factors should be examined to determine whether the mother will act in the child's best interest:
- the quality of her relationship with the child, which may be mostly positive, ambivalent, or mostly negative;
- her level of dependency, particularly on the offender; and
- her willingness and/or ability to protect the victim, whether or not she has lingering concerns about the veracity of the allegations.
In addition, it is important to appreciate that mothers may not be steadfast. They often vacillate regarding their belief about the abuse and their support of the victim. For example, a mother may initially align herself with the child and later change her position when confronted by the alleged offender or with the practical and psychological consequences of a provictim stance. Alternatively, she may appear supportive of the child with the professionals but behave otherwise away from their presence.
A very different issue may need to be pursued in the mother's interview in some circumstances in which there is an antagonistic relationship between the mother and the alleged offender. Such may be the case when the mother is in the process of divorcing the offender, or they are already divorced, and there are disputes regarding custody or visitation. That issue is whether the mother is making, is supporting, or has induced a fabricated allegation of sexual abuse. The research indicates that between 50 and 75 percent of allegations that arise in the context of divorce are "likely" or "substantiated" and that consciously made false allegations are quite rare.69 70 71
Finally, the interview with the mother can be used to gather information about the causes or dynamics of the sexual abuse. CPS caseworkers will explore this in less depth than mental health professionals. Information to be obtained from the mother and the rationale for seeking it can be found in Chart 1.
The Interview With the Alleged Offender
Jurisdictions vary as to whether law enforcement or CPS conduct the initial interview with the alleged offender. It may be preferable for law enforcement to take the lead role in order to obtain a legally admissible confession. In addition, the law enforcement officer can obtain a warrant to search the premises and seize relevant physical evidence and has the capacity to "preserve the chain of evidence," so that the physical evidence will be admissible in court. Police officers are also the only professionals who can make arrests.
There are parallels in the expectations the investigator has for interviews with the alleged offender (father/father figure) and with the mother. The interviewer seeks additional information regarding the allegations, tries to assess the quality of the offender's relationships with the victim and other family members, and attempts to understand the causes of the abuse.
There is a possibility that the alleged offender will provide information that either refutes or supports the allegation. However, the interviewer must appreciate that the alleged offender has a substantial vested interest in convincing professionals and others, including his wife, that the child is either lying, fantasizing, mistaken, or emotionally disturbed, when in fact the child's allegations are true. Consequences for him are dire, including loss of his child, his family, and perhaps his job, and the prospect of prison.
Information the alleged offender provides regarding the abuse must be viewed with this understanding. Nevertheless, there are cases in which the accused provides a reasonable alternative explanation for the child's statements. This may be the case when the child's statements are rather vague or relate to possible child care behaviors.
Some offenders will confess when confronted with the allegations. The probability of confession is substantially increased when the offender knows that treatment is available, even when accompanied by some punishment (i.e., jail time).72
It is always important to assess the quality of the alleged offender's relationship with the victim and others in the family. Such information is helpful in determining risk and whether it is advisable to work later toward some relationship or reconciliation between victim and offender, if abuse is established.
One of the significant dilemmas of diagnosis of sex offending is that there is no psychological test(s) or series of responses to interview questions that can rule out sexual abuse.73 Similarly, the only response from the alleged offender assessment that is an absolute is the confession. In most instances, the interviewer elicits information from the alleged offender that could imply a history of sexual offending but might also be explained in other ways.
As a further complication, there are many different types of sex offenders. For example, some offenders present with pervasive dysfunction, and others function reasonably well, except for their sexual deviance. The sexual orientation of some offenders is primarily toward children, whereas others may be primarily aroused by peers and under certain circumstances show a sexual response toward children.
Chart 2 suggests general information to be sought from the alleged offender and the rationale for seeking it. The general areas for assessment are the same for mothers and offenders; however, the rationale for exploring them may be different or have a different emphasis. For example, the ability to exercise impulse control and the willingness to be held accountable for own behaviors are major areas of assessment with alleged offenders, requiring more thorough exploration.
It is important to appreciate that offenders and sometimes mothers have a vested interest in concealing certain information and/or presenting themselves in a favorable light. Therefore, it is essential to gather additional information from other sources, including other family members, the family's informal social network, and professionals, particularly past or current therapists.
If it is determined by CPS or law enforcement that a child has been sexually abused, the case is one of intrafamilial abuse, and the child is at home, then it is necessary to make a determination of risk to the child if she/he stays in that environment. Following are three types of potential risk:
- Risk of additional sexual abuse
- Risk of physical abuse
- Risk of emotional maltreatment
Types of Emotional Risk
In most instances, the child is at greater risk for emotional maltreatment than additional sexual abuse immediately after disclosure. There are a variety of types of emotional abuse the victim may suffer.
- The child may be disbelieved by her/his mother, siblings, and/or extended family.
- The child may be blamed for the sexual abuse. She/he may be told she/he was seductive. The child may believe she/he allowed it because she/he got special favors from the offender.
- The child may be rejected by her/his family. Mother is angry at her/him. The child's siblings are angry because she/he has caused them embarrassment and loss of their father.
- The child may be blamed for the consequences of disclosure. Because she/he told, the father is going to have to leave the home, going to lose his job, going to jail. Now the mother will have to divorce the father. Now the family has to go on public assistance.
- The child may be pressured to recant.
Factors To Consider in Risk Assessment
If professionals determine that the child is at risk for future sexual, physical, or emotional maltreatment, then some plan should be made to protect her/him. Making a determination of risk is no easy task. Families may be quite secretive. Furthermore, decisions may need to be made on an emergency basis without complete information. Nevertheless, the following factors need to be considered:
- Type(s) of sexual abuse. The more intrusive the sexual acts and the greater the number of types of sexual activity, generally the riskier the situation. However, risk in situations involving "just" fondling should not be minimized.
- Characteristics of the abuse situation. Relevant characteristics are frequency of sexual activity, its duration, the presence or absence of force, and the use of threats. The more frequent and the longer the abuse has gone on, the harder it will be for the offender to refrain. The use of force and threats also signals increased risk. If the threats are manipulative, such as "You'll break up the family if you tell," the risk is for emotional maltreatment. If the threats are of bodily harm, then the risk is for physical abuse.
- Victim age. Generally, younger victims are more vulnerable than older ones.
- Relationship between victim and offender. As a rule, the greater the degree of relatedness, the greater the risk, especially for emotional abuse. Further, an offender who lives with the family poses a greater threat for sexual and emotional abuse than one outside the family.
- Number of victims. The more children the offender has sexually abused, the greater difficulty he will have controlling his sexual behavior.
- Number of offenders. Multiple offenders, especially if they are all within the family, mean the family provides a very risky environment.
- Reactions and functioning of the nonoffending parent. As noted earlier, factors include the mother's reaction to knowledge of the sexual abuse, her relationship with the victim, and her level of dependency on the offender. If she disbelieves the child, is unwilling to attend to the child's best interest, has a poor relationship with the child, or is dependent on the offender, then the child is at risk for emotional abuse and perhaps additional sexual abuse in the home.
- Reaction of the offender. As noted earlier, a confession, while unlikely, would mean less risk for the victim. Greater risk exists if the alleged offender denies the sexual abuse, especially if he blames the victim for disclosure. In either case, the offender's continued presence in the home poses a greater risk of abuse and emotional maltreatment.
- The presence of other problems in family functioning. These problems might include substance abuse, family violence, both spouse abuse and child abuse, mental illness, and mental retardation. Their effect depends on how many of these problems exist in the family, who has the problem, and the severity of the problem. However, their presence generally increases risk to the victim.
The choices are generally two remove the offender or remove the victim. There is professional agreement that removal of the offender is preferable. Even though this strategy may not be as certain in preventing additional sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, it has the considerable advantage of providing a clear message to the victim, the offender, and the family that he is the person who has done something wrong and that this is serious.
If he is denying the abuse, the offender's removal minimizes challenges to the child's sense of reality and anxiety about whether he/she or the offender will be believed. Even if the offender admits and is willing to seek treatment, he should be asked or ordered to leave until a clinical decision is made that he should return. This action decreases opportunities for the offender to minimize the abuse and to manipulate the child and other family members into feeling sorry for him, placing responsibility for his abusive behavior on others or circumstances, and minimizing the damage to himself.
However, an additional condition for keeping the victim in the home and removing the offender is the mother's support of the child, her ability to resist pressures from the offender, and her more general ability to handle stress related to sexual abuse and its disclosure. Finally, if the victim wants to be removed, this wish should be honored.
Appendix B provides a sample protocol for risk assessment.
* The range of professional required to report to CPS varies somewhat from State to State, and in some States all persons are mandated to report. Professionals should consult their State child protection reporting law to determine if they are mandated reporters.
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