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Understanding and investigating child physical abuse

by Robert Hugh Farley M.S.
Commanding Officer (Retired)
Child Exploitation Unit
Cook County Sheriff’s Police Department
Chicago, IL

Child abuse is an extremely difficult type of crime to investigative in part because it is the only crime where the victim is made to feel guilty or responsible for the abuse. Conducting an investigation of any kind can be either a frustrating or a rewarding experience — even for an experienced, competent and veteran investigator. Unfortunately, it’s frequently most frustrating for the person who conducts a child abuse investigation because this type of investigation may likely change the course of many people's lives forever. An understanding of the dynamics of child abuse, the victim and the abuser will provide insight into the many facets of this type of crime.

The purpose of a child abuse investigation is to ascertain the safety of the child and then to obtain the information necessary to resolve issues or a specific complaint. Every allegation of child abuse may not be credible for a variety of reasons. An investigator must gather information from victims, witnesses, suspects, accomplices — or other persons with whom the investigator comes into contact during the investigation. Physical evidence of wrongdoing can sometimes be located and identified but the investigator must know what to look for and how to assess or evaluate the evidence. The gathering of information and identifying physical evidence must be done slowly and methodically. There must never be a rush to judgment. Understanding the concepts and application of time-tested investigative practices is essential to understanding the investigative process.

The Victim

Child abuse can happen anywhere. And people from all backgrounds—regardless of social, economic, or educational level — can sexually abuse or physically abuse children. During my 28 years of conducting child abuse investigations, I have arrested men and women, for child abuse, who lived in Chicago’s notorious public housing projects as well as wealthy Internet predators who lived in some of the most exclusive communities in the Chicagoland area.

Child abuse usually takes place in secret. Frequently such abuse will go undetected for years. The victim will often conceal the abuse and then later will psychologically repress these experiences — in some cases for years. Children often will know no limits for their acceptance of the child abuser’s actions. The “love” or “friendship” between a child and the abuser ensures that these acts of cruelty go undetected by other members of the community.

Physical child abuse is usually not a constant or daily occurrence. There are often many days or weeks between the actual attacks. There is usually, though, constant or daily emotional abuse directed toward the child—abusive behavior such as yelling and belittlement. But, unless the caretaker is psychotic, the actual attacks most often occur intermittently and in a somewhat discreet manner.

Physical child abuse occurs in families from all socioeconomic groups. The poor, who generally have fewer choices for medical treatment available to them, are often more easily identified and then prosecuted in many of these cases. Further, health care providers or even school personnel may be more likely to question low-income parents about how their child’s injuries occurred, rather than questioning middle class or affluent parents about how their child’s injuries occurred.

During a physical child abuse investigation, the parent or other caretakers will exhibit a variety of attitudes, behaviors, and responses. Some parents, when interviewed may seem unconcerned about a child’s injuries. Others may feel guilty or remorseful for their actions. Still others may be reluctant to admit physically abusing a child out of fear of legal consequences or because they were beaten as a child by their own parents. In some situations non-abusive family members may even lie to protect a spouse or other loved one who is responsible for physically abusing a child. This occurs for a number of reasons, such as preservation of even a dysfunctional family unit, potential loss of a breadwinner, or fear of reprisals.

In an effort to conceal the physical abuse, caretakers may delay seeking treatment or fail to provide treatment for injured children. Some abusive caretakers attempt to conceal a child’s injuries by having the injured child wear oversized clothing to school or by keeping the child inside a family residence for extended periods of time.

In some families, one or more children are singled out for abuse because of a characteristic that the parent or caretaker perceives as negative. Children who are abused repeatedly because of specific characteristics are known as target children. Repetitive abuse of this kind is known as the “target” or “special child” syndrome. Targeting is not always easy to identify. It may be a causation factor when a parent claims that a child is hyperactive, aggressive, or disobedient. Again, it may not be just one child in the family who has been physically abused.

Hands and fists are the most common weapons in physical child abuse cases. If other weapons or objects are used, they are often ordinary household instruments such as a belt, a wooden spoon, or an extension cord. The overall size and shape of the injury left on a child’s body may indicate the type of object that the offender used.

Frequently during a physical child abuse investigation I have found that parents or caretakers who were abused as children are more likely to abuse their own children. A family history of spousal abuse also increases the likelihood of child abuse. Substance or alcohol abuse is another major causative and correlating factor for the physical and emotional abuse of children. The frustration and pressures of poverty may also increase the chance of child abuse. Other contributing factors can be the loss of a job, an illness or death in a family, or a divorce or separation.

Real life child abuse investigations cannot be completed in 23 minutes as seen in the investigation portion of television show “Law and Order.” Conducting an accurate physical child abuse investigation is a long tedious process that often involves a great number of leads being followed-up, some of which should include the following:

• Soft tissue bruise and wound injury assessment
• Identifying the child abuse weapon configuration or imprint
• Reconstructing what happen to the victim
• Soft tissue injury comparison studies
• Identifying and documenting specific evidence that can be found in physical child abuse investigations
• Networking with the physician
• Dealing with the issue of “criminal intent” on the part of the caretaker


Physically abused children often walk gingerly around the abuser fearing something will set him or her off. Because crying often brings extra blows, abused children will often learn to suppress their tears. These children often will feel responsible for the abuse, rationalizing to themselves, for example, that they “got caught being so bad” that they had to get “whupped,” or that “Daddy wouldn’t hit me unless he loved me.” Only after extensive therapy as adults can they remember and then fully acknowledge their helplessness, anger, and indignation over being beaten by a beloved parent or caretaker.

Robert Farley teaches several seminars for John E. Reid and Associates, including one program that focuses on the assessment, investigation and reconstruction of cases involving soft tissue injuries such as bruises, lacerations and burns. The schedule for this course, Physical and Neglect: Child Abuse Injury Reconstruction Techniques, can be found at www.reid.com



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