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Child abuse calls: 3 things cops should keep in mind

Child abuse calls present a number of challenges to responding officers

By Kirk Pero

Investigating child abuse is often difficult for an inexperienced detective or a patrol officer. Common errors made in these cases in most jurisdictions are:

1. Interviewing a child victim at the scene.
2. Failing to preserve fragile evidence.
3. Failing to build rapport with a victim’s family.

Let’s explore each in detail.

1. Interviewing a child victim at the scene.
The interview of a potential child victim or witness should be done only by someone who is a certified forensic interviewer. If your department is a small one that doesn’t have anyone certified, you should reach out to Child Protective Services or possibly a certified interviewer at a local hospital. These interviews are specifically designed to elicit important information without being leading or suggestive.

The multi-disciplinary team approach, with police, CPS, prosecutors, medical professionals and victim advocates all working together, can be extremely helpful in matching your team members’ expertise with necessary tasks. All too often, the first responding patrol officers treat child victims and witnesses like adults and interview them as such.

Statements obtained during these interviews are often attacked later by skilled attorneys, and it is easily suggested to juries that these well-intentioned officers have led the victim or witness into a disclosure or identification.

2. Failing to preserve fragile evidence.
Fragile evidence can be present in many forms during child abuse investigations. Bruising on skin can disappear or change in appearance quickly. Bodily fluids on bedding can be cleaned and disposed of. Dangerous instruments or weapons used in physical abuse can be quickly disposed of as well. These scenes should be secured in the same manner as a shooting or robbery. Evidence technicians should collect DNA swabs when possible.

Photos should be taken of injuries as quickly as possible. The same holds true of the scene. Sex crimes are often disclosed years after they take place, but location photos are still crucial even if the victim no longer lives in the house.

Many officers do not take the initiative to perform these tasks due to the unfamiliar nature of the abuse investigation. They waste precious time waiting for detectives to take charge and lose valuable evidence.

3. Failing to build rapport with a victim’s family.
Officers failing to build rapport with the family of the victim can lose their cooperation forever. In the current anti-cop climate, it is often difficult for inexperienced officers to relate to the people they serve. These officers often isolate themselves and do not interact with the potential witnesses or even the child victim.

Detectives will arrive hours later at a pediatric emergency room to find uniformed patrol officers standing over a victim as if they were on a prisoner guard. Showing empathy and compassion toward the family and their unfortunate circumstances can make the job of the detective that much easier in moving toward a successful resolution of the case.

Child abuse calls present a number of challenges to responding officers. In addition to mentally preparing yourself for the obvious uncomfortable subject matter, remember to avoid these three common errors during your investigation.

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