Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Responses to the Problem of Child Abuse and Neglect in the Home

Your analysis of your local problem of child abuse and neglect in the home should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem.

The following response strategies provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your particular problem. These strategies are drawn from a variety of research studies and police reports. Several of these strategies may apply to your community's problem. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem. Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do: carefully consider whether others in your community share responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it. The responsibility of responding, in some cases, may need to be shifted toward those who have the capacity to implement more effective responses. (For more detailed information on shifting and sharing responsibility, see Response Guide No. 3, Shifting and Sharing Responsibility for Public Safety Problems).

General Considerations for an Effective Response Strategy

1. Reducing community risk factors for child abuse and neglect. Some of the risk factors for child abuse and neglect are related to the overall characteristics of the communities where families live. For example, families living in poverty or challenged by unemployment experience higher stress levels that can undermine healthy parenting. Responses that address communities' economic well-being can have individual-level impacts that may reduce the incidence of maltreatment. Similarly, efforts to stabilize housing opportunities and to restrict the availability of drugs and alcohol within the community may enhance individual protective factors.24

2. Educating the public about the problem of child abuse and neglect. The key to addressing child abuse and neglect is to ensure that police and other agencies responsible for responding to it are informed of families in need of intervention. Professionals and community residents are the main conduits of this information and thus must be aware of the problem and how to report their suspicions that a child is being abused or neglected.† This information can be conveyed through public service announcements, press releases, posters and billboards, or television documentaries, all of which raise community awareness of maltreatment as a public issue and of the various resources available.25

In addition to informing the general public, targeted efforts can be made to ensure that children learn basic concepts of safety, appropriate contact with parents, and how to ask for help if they feel they have been mistreated. Particularly in the prevention of child sexual abuse, children must learn appropriate behavioral limits. Although increased knowledge does not necessarily result in safer behavior among potential victims, better outcomes have been found when parents participate in the program and when teachers integrate safety concepts into everyday teaching.26

† One local Area Child Protection Committee in the United Kingdom developed a public awareness campaign using the slogan "The difference between child abuse and child protection could be you." Posters created by local art students were placed in supermarkets, shopping centers, and public health centers. They provided the contact numbers for police and local child protective teams. An information kit titled "Knowing the Basics" also provided the public with information on the characteristics of child abuse and how community members could report it (Davies 2004).

3. Clarifying mandatory child-abuse reporting laws. Subjectivity and ambiguity in mandatory child-abuse reporting laws contribute to the failure to report suspected abuse.27 Not only do these laws need to be clear, but also they should be streamlined to ensure response efficiency. Some states require residents to report all allegations of child abuse and neglect- regardless of their severity-to the police. Such overly broad requirements can be counterproductive.28 Without guidelines to filter the most serious allegations, reporting laws risk overwhelming police, who must review numerous cases only to decide which ones to investigate.

Conversely, some reporting laws are overly narrow, requiring only a small subset of allegations to be reported to police (e.g., only those involving sexual abuse or fatalities). Such a restricted focus creates the risk that cases involving imminent danger or chronic patterns of less serious injuries will not benefit from police involvement. Reporting laws should require people to notify the police of serious injuries and cases in which imminent danger exists, along with cases that child protective services deem appropriate for police involvement.29 Reporting laws must also clearly specify the point at which police must be notified.30

4. Increasing line officers' awareness of suspicious injuries. Incidents of child abuse and neglect often go undetected because police or other first responders coming into contact with children do not identify injuries, conditions, or behaviors as suspicious. Children sustain many accidental injuries, but caretakers may also inflict them. During their normal course of duty, responding to calls for service or functioning as school resource officers, police must take proactive steps to assess the condition of all children present.†† When a child has an injury, police must ask caretakers to explain how the injury occurred, being attuned to implausible, illogical, or conflicting statements. From there, asking the child how he or she was injured may produce inconsistencies that suggest the injury was not accidental. There are many high-quality resources for police to develop skill in identifying suspicious injuries.†††

†† The LaCrosse (Wisconsin) Police Department noted that children in families where domestic violence occurred were 15 times more likely to experience child abuse. In response, the department's Domestic Abuse Reduction Team revised its standard report to note the children's presence at domestic violence incidents, even those who were not directly involved. Detectives follow up on the children's condition after the initial visit and also notify the prosecutor of the children's presence so that their needs can be included in diversion agreements (LaCrosse Police Department 1999).

††† Resources for identifying suspicious injuries include Farley and Reece (2002); California Attorney General's Office, Crime and Violence Prevention Center (2006); and U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (1997).

5. Creating police agency policy regarding child abuse and neglect. Written policies help to establish professional standards and can elevate the quality of police investigations. Policy statements should include clear direction on the steps police must take when a suspected child abuse or neglect report comes to their attention.31 They should also provide police with specific guidelines for making crucial decisions such as removing a child from the home or arresting a suspect.32

6. Increasing the reliability of statements made by victims of child abuse and neglect.

Interviewing skills. Poorly conducted interviews can alienate and upset child victims. Failing to adapt interview techniques to the special needs of child victims can lead to an inaccurate understanding of the facts and can create opportunities for inconsistencies and errors that may be challenged in court.† Common errors in interviewing children include reinforcing certain answers, relaying what others believe about the allegation, and asking complicated questions.33 The reliability of victims' statements is enhanced when police do the following:34

  • Make the interview setting child-friendly.
  • Recognize the developmental capabilities of children of different ages.
  • Exercise patience when asking the child to explain what happened.
  • Avoid "why" questions and focus instead on clear, open-ended questions about salient events.
  • Make efforts to offset any guilt the victim may experience for "causing trouble."

† This guide offers only general guidance-one resource for more specific interview protocols and guidelines is American Prosecutors Research Institute (2004).

Training. Numerous training programs to enhance interviewers' skills are available. They should be grounded in child development and best-practice research. Not only should courses present information on legal issues, child-abuse dynamics, child development, evidence-gathering, and interviewing skills, but also they should provide many opportunities for attendees to practice the skills they have learned and to receive specific feedback from trained observers.35 Holding a single, intensive training session is certainly efficient, but breaking the course down into phases allows attendees to apply the new skills in the field and then return to training to work through any difficulties they experienced.

Several studies have found that training programs can increase knowledge while having only a limited effect on practice. For example, a study of one such program found that interview training did not impact key interviewing skills such as the types of questions that should be asked or the length of the interview, nor did the training substantially improve interviewers' ability to gather useful information.36 Outcomes can be improved with highly structured protocols, competency-based assessments, and regular supervision and feedback.

Videotaping.37 You should use videotapes of a child victim's statements selectively. Advocates hold that videotape yields a more accurate and credible rendering of what happened and can discourage victims from recanting as the trial date approaches. Further, videotaping holds interviewers accountable for how they conduct the interview and can later be used as a training aid. Opponents of videotaping victims' statements hold that court proceedings tend to focus on inconsistencies and interviewers' mistakes, rather than focusing on the substance of what the child reports. Not only does the interviewer need to be trained to use the technology effectively, but also the viewer must be trained in how to interpret young children's language and nonverbal cues. In practice, professionals generally indicate that videotaped statements are superior to handwritten notes, but that the technical quality is extremely important. Videotaped statements' effect on prosecutorial outcomes is unknown.

Specific Responses to Child Abuse and Neglect in the Home

7. Creating multidisciplinary teams to respond to child maltreatment allegations. No single agency can fully respond to child mistreatment allegations. Many jurisdictions have involved a wide array of professionals in the team tasked with responding to child maltreatment. Medical and dental professionals, coroners and medical examiners, mental health workers, victim advocates, prosecutors, and teachers and guidance counselors all have a unique skill set to apply to the problem of child maltreatment.38, †† Not surprisingly, complex child abuse investigations are difficult to coordinate, and some agencies may overstep the boundaries of others, creating tension in an already difficult situation.

†† The Reno (Nevada) Police Department created a "Knock and Talk" program that pairs a police officer with a public health nurse to check on the welfare of families living in local motels. These families sometimes fail to provide for their children's medical needs or engage in harmful parenting practices. Being alert to the signs of mistreatment, the police-nurse team can identify families who need help (Crane and Dedel Johnson 2000).

In the initial team discussions, you should identify failings of the current process for investigating and responding to child maltreatment. Protocols for remedying these problems should be sufficiently broad to cover a variety of situations, yet specific enough to offer clear direction for team members by answering the questions of who, what, when, where, and how each member should respond.39 Teams need to develop strategies for promoting teamwork, preventing burnout, and resolving conflict. Teams should also consult local counsel to address any confidentiality issues that may prevent full communication among team members.

Multidisciplinary teams serve two key purposes.40 First, their primary function can be investigative, meaning that they identify new cases and review those under investigation and pending court. Team input ensures that key issues do not fall through the cracks. Team interviews, led by a single team member and conducted in front of a one-way mirror or on CCTV, can reduce the number of separate interviews needed to gather information from victims, suspects, and witnesses.41 Second, using information gained from the interviews, the team can also engage in service planning, committing a variety of therapeutic and other support services to meet the family's needs.

Although there are many benefits to working collaboratively, multidisciplinary teams are not without challenges.42 From the police perspective, child protective services workers are not focused on collecting evidence, may unwittingly overlook important cues, or may permit the suspect to obstruct the investigation. Most child protective services use a team approach and require multiple consultations before acting, which may frustrate police who are often used to working independently and making decisions at the scene. These same dynamics can frustrate child protective services workers. Perhaps most seriously, applying more-rigorous criminal justice standards of evidence may improperly influence child protective services workers, who then fail to substantiate cases in which children are at risk of future maltreatment.43

Research has shown that multidisciplinary team intervention leads to a reduced number of cases in which victims, suspects, and witnesses undergo multiple interviews; increased numbers of sexual abuse victims receiving therapeutic services; shorter caseworker response times; more- thorough investigations (e.g., longer ones with more contacts and more face-to-face interviews); improved criminal justice outcomes (e.g., confessions, guilty pleas, and prosecutions); and increased numbers of substantiated child protective services cases.44

Joint investigations by police and child protective services workers. At the most basic level, these teams should identify the dual responsibilities of police and child protective services workers when initially responding. In the United States, both law enforcement and child protective services are legally mandated to intervene in cases of suspected child abuse. One problem parallel mandates creates is the need for multiple people to interview the victim. Not only is repeating the same basic questions inefficient, but also repeated interviewing can distress the victim. Police and child protective services are alike in some ways, but different in others: both are dedicated to protecting children and both seek to learn the truth about the allegations made. But child protective services are primarily concerned with assessing the child's environment and planning to ensure future safety, while police are looking for evidence of a specific crime that could lead to an arrest.45

While the potential for duplication and interference certainly exists, the shared responsibility also creates an opportunity for collaboration that improves outcomes for both agencies. Each agency brings its own style and skill set to the problem of responding to child maltreatment. These approaches can be complementary and supportive, once each agency gains understanding and respect for the other's approach. Some police assume that child protective services workers fundamentally oppose pursuing criminal charges because of their unyielding commitment to maintaining the family unit. They also fear that child protective services workers may inadvertently interfere with evidence collection and hinder police efforts to file criminal charges. On the other hand, child protective services workers often believe that police always want to file charges, even when criminal action would not be in the family's best interest. Child protective services workers may also fear that police may take a heavy-handed approach that will ultimately antagonize the family and reduce opportunities for meaningful intervention. In reality, neither agency is one-dimensional and, with practice, each agency can learn to respect and support the mission of the other.46

The law requires some police agencies to collaborate with child protective services, while others choose to do so because of the many benefits these collaborations provide, such as easier information-sharing, more thorough investigations, additional opportunities for mutual support, a special focus on the developmental needs of child victims, and greater accountability.47

A written interagency agreement should precisely articulate the specifics of conducting joint investigations. The agreement should present the reporting procedures as defined by law and should create a specific protocol for how the agencies, together, will approach each case (e.g., what roles they will play, how they will notify each other, which cases they will jointly investigate, what steps they will take at each stage of the investigation, what time frames they will use, how they will keep records, who will be responsible for what, what conflict resolution procedures they will use).48

Situations in Which Police Presence at Initial Contact Is Strongly Recommended

  • The case is serious enough to warrant arrest.
  • Police cannot reach child protective services and they need an immediate response.
  • A child is endangered and the child protective services worker is not permitted to enter the home.
  • A child must be placed in protective custody against the parents' wishes.
  • The suspect may flee.
  • Evidence must be preserved.
  • The child protective services worker needs protection or order must otherwise be maintained.

Adapted from Besharov (1990), p. 10.

Most agencies with strong interagency agreements create formal teams of police and child protective services workers.† The permanent assignments and high-level contact breed familiarity and trust. These teams should have access to high-quality training programs that allow all personnel to become familiar with the language, techniques, processes, and objectives of the other agency.††

† In 1998, New York City's child welfare agency, police department, and district attorney's office launched the Instant Response Team (IRT). Within two hours of an allegation of serious mistreatment (e.g., fatality, sexual abuse, or severe injury), child welfare, police, and often a prosecutor responded to the location to conduct joint interviews of the possible victim in a child-friendly setting. In most of the IRT's cases, the police removed the suspect, rather than the child, from the home (Ross, Levy, and Hope 2004).

The Vancouver (British Columbia) Police and the Ministry of Children and Families created "Car 86," which dispatched a police officer and social workers team to the scene of all domestic disputes, family violence calls, and child welfare matters that involved violence. For both team members, "Car 86" formed an information conduit for normally confidential information about previous child welfare and police involvement with people at the location. Those assigned to "Car 86" also shared their newfound expertise with other members of each agency during routine consultation (Ennis 2000; Edmonton Police Service 1998).

†† The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department created an investigation academy for nonpolice members of its multidisciplinary team. A 40-hour course provided training in investigation skills, report writing, courtroom demeanor, interview skills, substance abuse recognition, detection of deception and lying, evidence collection, and collaborative investigation strategies. This course is now a required component for all new child protective services workers (Baca, Jendrucko, and Scott 2001).

You must conduct joint investigations within a larger context of interagency collaborations. Case review meetings including representatives of all agencies are needed to sustain momentum, make decisions that meet each agency's needs, and troubleshoot obstacles that arise. You should hold strategy meetings before interviewing victims, suspects, and witnesses and subsequently review the information obtained.49 Studies of effective police and child protective services collaborations have found that cooperation is maximized when police do not dominate the interviews, allowing child protective services workers sufficient time to gather needed information.50 Similarly, police should be trained in child development so that they structure developmentally appropriate interview questions.

Police specialists. Even if police departments cannot or will not create formal partnerships with child protective services and other agencies, they can still enhance the quality of their response to maltreatment allegations by dispatching specially trained officers to the scene of a child abuse or neglect incident. In addition, providing responding officers with specific child maltreatment-related information regarding the location can improve response.† When officers have core training in the areas discussed above, they can better respond to and investigate allegations on their own. Depending on your department's size, you may train individual officers or create a specialized unit. Given the stress of these types of cases, child maltreatment specialists should have access to support groups and the department's psychologist.51 Although specialists do bring a unique skill set and may enhance the quality of the department's response, using specialists can also create a gulf between them and regular uniformed officers who would benefit from having many of the same skills.52

† The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department created an "831 Notification System" for field personnel who respond to child abuse allegations. The information system provides the responding officer with the history of activity at the location, describing prior events. Armed with this information, the responding officer has more current and accurate data about the residence's occupants and may be better able to anticipate events (Baca, Jendrucko, and Scott 2001).

8. Conducting child fatality reviews. A child's death is the most tragic outcome of child abuse and neglect. When it occurs, a team composed of police, child protective services representatives, prosecutors, coroner(s), and other medical experts should review the case's circumstances to detect any discrepancies between policy and practice and any gaps in communication that may have prevented the child's death. Improvements flowing from these reviews can prevent future deaths. Once formed, child fatality review teams must identify the types of cases they will review. Some teams meet regularly; others meet only after a death occurs. In most jurisdictions, members are not paid for their service. Perhaps as a result, high turnover rates and unstable membership pose a challenge to many teams.53

9. Enhancing cultural competence. Ignorance of the dynamics within local immigrant cultures can hamper the investigation of possible maltreatment. Being culturally competent requires far more than learning how to greet or talk to people from various cultures.†† Investigating officers must also do the following:54

  • Recognize that immigrants may create stories and dates to comply with the law and to provide information often lost or destroyed in war-torn countries. Officers should ask for the truth about things particularly relevant to the case, but should not press for the truth about inconsequential details.
  • Understand what information they must report to immigration agencies and inform the family accordingly.
  • Ask for the family's language preference and use it by contracting with an interpreter, if necessary. People's true personalities are much more apparent when they can speak in their native language. Further, you should provide all documents in the family's native language so they have adequate time to read, digest, and consult others regarding the information.

†† For tips on developing cultural competency in the Asian American community, see Hwang and Vang (2009).

10. Creating child advocacy centers. Aiming to reduce the trauma that often accompanies a child maltreatment investigation, many jurisdictions have created child advocacy centers (CACs). These stand-alone programs usually involve police, child protective services workers, prosecutors, mental health professionals, medical professionals, and victim advocates. A team specially trained to interview child abuse victims works within a child-friendly environment, assessing needs and providing services.††† CACs do not have uniform models, but rather play roles unique to the community's needs; however, they incorporate many practices with a solid research base and thus favorable case outcomes are likely.55

††† The Baltimore Police Department's Child Advocacy Network (CAN) is a neutral multidisciplinary setting where a licensed social worker or psychologist interviews victims of child sexual abuse and a forensic pediatrician examines them. The CAN minimizes both trauma and waiting time for victims and also allows patrol officers to return to service more quickly (Baltimore Police Department 1997).

11. Implementing home visitation programs. Although police are rarely directly involved in them, home visitation programs are an essential component of a coordinated response to child abuse and neglect. Usually operated by public health agencies, home visitation programs provide services to pregnant mothers and families with newborns to reduce the risk of maltreatment. They may include information regarding parenting techniques and nonviolent discipline, child development, health, home safety, and access to local services. Jurisdictions implementing this response should attend closely to research identifying the essential elements of effective home visitation programs.56 Families receiving high-quality home visitation services generate lower numbers of maltreatment reports than similarly situated families who do not receive such services.57

12. Improving family support systems to reduce family stressors. Marital and family stressors are a major contributing factor to child abuse and neglect. Programs to alleviate these stressors and to provide family support can therefore reduce the incidence of child maltreatment. Again, although police will have a very limited, if any, role in these programs, they are an important part of a comprehensive response to child abuse and neglect. Social services, faith-based groups, and family services may provide parent support groups and parenting classes; child care, parent aid, and parent respite care; and programs to meet families' basic needs for food, shelter, and clothing. Employers whose policies can help to ease the stress working parents experience can also support these efforts. Policies such as flexible schedules, parental leave, and employer-supported child care can remove a key stressor that contributes to child maltreatment.58

13. Offering confindential helpline assistance to those who see themselves at risk of abusing a child. Parents and other caregivers may recognize their own vulnerabilities and inability to cope in certain situations. Offering a free, confidential telephone helpline where these individuals may seek advice, guidance and support may prevent their offending.† While rigorous research on the effectiveness of helplines has not been conducted, some evidence has shown that at least some potential offenders will call to ask for assistance.59 Helplines should be widely advertised and should offer callers follow-up services such as information and confidential counseling.

† The "Stop It Now!" helpline focuses on preventing child sexual abuse and offers free telephone support to those who are concerned about their own or others' behavior (see http://www.stopitnow.org/help.html).

14. Removing children from the home. For many families, police contact and the crafting of a safety plan by child protective services workers may be sufficient to protect possible victims from future harm. For others, however, the children remain at risk of immediate harm. In these cases, police have the authority to remove children from the home and to place them in protective custody. All officers need to know the law in their state. Without this information, they risk leaving a child in a dangerous situation or removing a child illegally, both of which could result in civil liability for the officer and the department.60

Police should not leave the scene until they are certain children remaining in the home will be safe from continued abuse, intimidation, or retaliation and will receive needed medical care.

Police should decide to remove a child from the home in concert with child protective services. If police remove the child, child protective services will usually identify a proper placement. Placements with friends or relatives are preferred over emergency foster or shelter care. Police should involve caretakers in the decision regarding emergency placement and should advise them of their legal rights. However, police should not try to rationalize the removal. Extensive explanations will not lessen the pain, fear, and hostility parents experience and can raise the child's anxiety.61 Police should also consult children and address their feelings of guilt or responsibility. Police can reduce the stress of removal by keeping siblings together and letting the children take a few favorite possessions.62

For a number of reasons, removing a child from the home may be more traumatic than the abuse or neglect.63 Many communities do not have sufficient facilities for emergency placements and child victims are improperly placed in detention facilities or hospitals. Other jurisdictions' service networks require transfer among multiple foster homes. Taken as a whole, removal severely stresses families already experiencing problems.

15. Arresting and prosecuting child abusers. If the facts warrant doing so, arresting the suspect may be a viable alternative to removing the child from the home. Arrest causes an immediate change in the environment and creates an opportunity to plan and implement a long-term rehabilitative program for the family.64 However, arresting the suspected abuser is by no means the rule-child protective services rather than the criminal justice system handle the majority of cases of alleged maltreatment. That said, if the suspect is likely to flee, removing the suspect from the home is the only way to ensure the child's safety or preserve the peace. If the child's injuries are severe, or criminal prosecution is likely, arrest may be the most prudent police action.65

Prosecution is the most consequential response to child abuse and neglect; unfortunately, these cases are also arguably the most difficult to prosecute. The cases are complex because prosecutors receive referrals from two different agencies (i.e., police and child protective services), both of which are involved with the investigation. Further, child abuse is often difficult to detect, and evidence is hard to get. As a result, it is difficult to determine whether a crime has occurred, and who is culpable. Child abuse and neglect prosecutions rely heavily on the victims' testimony, which is notoriously unpredictable. Although most substantiated cases of child abuse and neglect are not prosecuted, most of those that are result in a conviction.66

Responses With Limited Effectiveness

16. Transferring jurisdiction for all child abuse cases to law enforcement. A few states have granted police agencies the sole responsibility for investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect, believing that delegation to a single agency will result in more timely and efficient investigations. However, research conducted on Florida's experience with this model found no improvements in the efficiency of investigations or the promptness of service delivery.67 Further, the model had no impact on the rate of maltreatment or the severity of criminal justice sanctions.

17. Containing sex offenders using offender restrictions and community awareness. Federal law compels all states to pass legislation requiring sex offenders to register their addresses with local law enforcement agencies so that police can track and apprehend potential suspects. Federal law also allows states to distribute information to community residents about registered sex offenders who live nearby. These laws were designed to increase community awareness and to help residents avoid contact with potential offenders. Some states have also created exclusionary zones that prevent sex offenders from living near playgrounds, day care centers, schools, parks, and other areas where children congregate. These laws were intended to increase the distance between potential offenders and potential victims.

Research on the effectiveness of these policies in reducing recidivism is generally unsupportive, in part because the policies are generally not evidence-based nor do they reflect the actual risk to community safety posed by offenders of different risk levels. Rather, these policies are often based on false perceptions of the nature of sex offending.68 For example, the laws themselves often rely on beliefs about "stranger danger," when in reality, most victims know their abusers.69Contrary to public expectations, some research has shown that recidivism rates among sex offenders are relatively low compared with those of other violent offenders. Further, the research shows that these restrictions do little to address the root causes of sexual reoffending. Particularly when evaluating potential responses to sexual abuse by a caretaker in the home, registry and notification laws have a major disconnect with the likely victim pool of these perpetrators.70

Registry and notification laws also have many consequences policymakers have not anticipated. Notification can increase anxiety among community residents because the notice is not usually accompanied by practical information on how to reduce one's risk of harm.71 Residency restrictions have dire consequences for offenders, including the loss of employment, housing, and supportive family networks, which, paradoxically, increases the risk of reoffending. As more sex offenders cannot find a permanent residence, which may result in registries' including obsolete or falsified address information, police find it harder to keep track of them.