Why cops must take a multi-disciplinary approach to child sex abuse investigations

Good investigators are never afraid to admit what they don’t know or ask for assistance when needed


Child sex abuse investigations pose a number of challenges to an officer or investigator. Many of the cases are reported late, which means there may or may not be a crime scene to respond to and thus little or no physical evidence to examine or collect.

Another challenge is the age of a young victim possibly resulting in his or her inability to articulate what may have happened to them. In older victims, reluctance to report poses another challenge and can be attributed to a variety of reasons including elements of shame, psychological impact of abuse, fear of relocation, affection for their abuser, dependency upon their abuser, or threats made. And yet one more frequently unacknowledged challenge is the emotional response of the officer or investigator to these types of cases.

Despite the many challenges associated with child sex abuse investigations, the victims rely on members of law enforcement and others to attain justice. Most victims are vulnerable, and by the sheer nature of sex abuse crimes may have been abused more than once. They deserve every possible effort we can extend them. These investigations can challenge the skills of even the most seasoned investigator and case success requires a creative approach toward solving the crime. Below are three important considerations when investigating a child sex abuse case.

1. Use a Team Approach
While these cases are undoubtedly challenging, the good news is the primary investigator does not need to go it alone. Child sex abuse cases almost always require a team approach. The average child sex abuse case should involve consultation and cooperation with a number of resources and skilled professionals. Resources to consider are:

  • Local Department of Social Services
  • Child Protective Services
  • Medical/Psychological Professionals (including doctors and nurses but particularly those trained in (SAFE) Sexual Assault Forensic Examination)
  • Crime Lab/Forensic Technicians (Great for consulting on identifying and locating evidence as well as processing and testing needed)
  • Prosecutors
  • Others such as local or national child advocacy centers or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

This all-hands approach not only helps to further the investigation but also introduces the necessary resources for the victim’s safety, physical and mental health and an informed prosecutorial approach. Consulting these resources also serves to address investigative challenges as they arise, offering ideas from different perspectives and providing fresh investigative considerations. I have always found that good investigators are never afraid to admit what they don’t know or ask for assistance when needed.

The team approach does not make for a quick investigation but it does make for a thorough investigation and that is what the complexity of these cases calls for.

2. Involve CPS in Interviews
The interview of child sexual assault victims also requires a team approach whenever possible. Sometimes, due to the size and resources of a department or the nature of a lesser crime, the primary investigator will have to interview alone. In an ideal circumstance, the interview of a child sexual assault victim should be conducted by a child protective services (CPS) worker, a social worker, or a police officer trained in the forensic interviewing of children.

The advantage of the CPS or social worker is that much of the time, they can testify on behalf of the victim instead of the victim needing to take the stand. In these types of investigations and in most states, trained social workers and medical professionals are given an exception to the hearsay rule. Consider the following when interviewing a victim of child sexual abuse:

  1. One of the primary tenets of the forensic interview of children is to avoid asking leading questions. This is very easy to do with children because adults are prone to try to be helpful but this must be avoided!
  2. One helpful way to question a child is to interject as little personal emotion as possible.
  3. Good questioning prompts can be, “Can you tell me everything about what happened?” or “Can you help me understand more?”
  4. If a child gives a response that requires additional inquiry, say, “Tell me about that…”

In child sex abuse cases, it is also important to interview others known to or related to the child victim, especially anyone who may have access to the abusive environment or to the alleged perpetrator. Consider:

  • Prioritizing the safety of other potential victims
  • CPS can help establish and implement safety plans for others in need
  • If others are not in danger of abuse themselves, they may be witnesses to or have knowledge of the abuse the victim has endured
  • It is important that all possible sources of information are explored and all leads followed up

3. Crime Scene and Physical Evidence
As mentioned, some abuse cases are reported late. This means there may or may not be a crime scene to process or, if there is one, it may offer little or no evidence. If you have a crime scene to work, process it as you would any investigation. Gather all possible physical evidence, photograph or videotape the scene and submit for testing all relevant evidence. In the event that you don’t have a crime scene, consider the following:

  1. Focus on validating the victim’s claims. For example: The abuse happened four years ago in the basement of a neighbor’s house but the neighbor has since moved. Clearly, there would be no evidence to pursue like bedsheets, suspect or victim clothing, instruments of the crime, etc. However, if the victim can describe the basement well, you may want to attempt to obtain photographs of the residence, even though the neighbor no longer lives there, in an effort to validate where the victim said the abuse occurred.
  2. Consider the victim as evidence.
    1. Get a forensic medical exam but be sure to know where those are conducted and by whom.
    2. Even if some time has transpired since the last episode of abuse, there still may be evidence of injury, sexual activity, sexually transmitted disease or bacterial infections consistent with abuse.
    3. Photograph any traumatic injuries.
    4. Consult with medical professionals as to their findings.

Physical evidence is vital in any case and child sex abuse is no different. Consider these items as potential evidence:

  • Bedsheets
  • Suspect and victim clothing
  • Condoms
  • Sex toys or related items
  • Cell phones (videotaping, phone calls, or text messages)
  • Video cameras
  • Computers, laptops, tablets and data storage devices
  • Carpet/flooring
  • Body fluids — biological DNA evidence
    • Consider the use of an alternative light source to help locate/collect
  • Recognize the possibility of child pornography — either manufacturing, distributing, or simply possessing it (it is not uncommon for a child sexual abuse suspect to attempt to try to memorialize incidents of abuse in this way)

Two other factors to consider in these cases is careful case preparation. Consult with the prosecutor in the case to ensure that all needs in the case have been met, all leads followed up, and all questions answered. And speaking of needs, consider the treatment needs of the victim. Once again, this is where the team approach really helps.

These victims deserve justice through our very best efforts and this multi-disciplinary approach helps to assure just that. 

About the author

Detective Morris Greenberg serves as a proud member of the Baltimore County Police in Baltimore, Maryland. Most of his career has been spent conducting criminal investigation in specialized units including Robbery, Violent Crimes and Homicide. He has also served on the department’s Hostage Negotiation Team. Detective Greenberg possesses a Master’s Degree from the Johns Hopkins University, Division of Public Safety Leadership and teaches within the Criminal Justice Programs at two local colleges.

Contact Moe Greenberg.

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