Home Law Enforcement Tips for Investigating Cases of Child Sex Abuse

Tips for Investigating Cases of Child Sex Abuse

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* This article is part of In Public Safety’s series recognizing Sexual Assault Awareness month.*

By Matthew Loux, faculty member at American Military University

It is difficult to determine exactly how many cases of child sexual abuse occur in the U.S. because so many cases go unreported to authorities. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau estimates that 9.2 percent of children who are victimized are sexually assaulted. Other staggering numbers include:

  • 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse
  • Over the course of one year, 16% of youth between 14 and 17 are sexually victimized
  • Over the course of a lifetime, 28% of U.S. youth between 14 and 17 are sexually victimized

As a law enforcement officer, it is important to not only know such statistics, but to know best practices in handling these cases.

Initial Investigation Techniques
An officer responding to a call of an alleged sexual abuse of a minor may receive the information from parents, relatives, neighbors, medical staff, teachers, or other children associated with the child. It is imperative that the officer not make any assumptions whether the report is valid. Officers must remain impartial and collect all the facts to determine if a crime has indeed occurred.

When interacting with a child victim, it is important that you attempt to see the situation from the child’s perspective. Do not use elaborate, adult language that may confuse him or her. Talking to the child in a way he or she can easily understand may also help you build trust.

The New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault (PDF) offers the following suggestions for the responding officer. Officers should:

  • Attend to the victim
  • Be careful not to stigmatize the victim
  • Preserve evidence on victim (i.e. not taking a shower, nothing to drink, not brushing teeth, or removing any clothes)
  • Secure and protect the crime scene
  • Contact the local rape crisis center
  • Apprehend the offender if present

Officers should also:

  • Ask if there is anyone else the victim would like to contact
  • Assess any special needs of the victim, such as restoring mobility or the need for an interpreter
  • Document the identity of anyone whom the victim may have told about the assault, or who may have seen or heard anything before, during, or after the assault
  • Explain the local investigation process, what to expect, and who will be involved
  • Be factual about the case and avoid making predictions or promises

Physical Evidence
Evidence CollectionDo not jump to the conclusion that the child must be rushed to the emergency room for a physical examination. First determine the type of act committed and the time period in which it occurred. In certain circumstances, it is imperative that officers act immediately to preserve the evidence and request trained medical personnel to help maintain not only the chain of custody, but the dignity of the child. Evidence at the scene such as clothing, bedding, or any other evidence should also be collected.

Items to look for and recover include:

  • Saliva
  • Ropes, twine, cordage
  • Body tissues and/or body parts
  • Bedding
  • Witnesses
  • Descriptive photos and sketches
  • Forensic evidence (hairs, fibers, soil, etc.)
  • Victim’s or suspect’s body fluids or tissues (semen, blood, vaginal fluids, etc.)
  • Tampons or sanitary napkins
  • Latent fingerprints
  • Items used in the assault (condom, lubricants, burglary tools, etc.)
  • Other items related to the assault (clothing, bedding, facial or toiletry tissues, etc.)

Interview Techniques
It is important to interview the person who reported the incident to obtain information about the victim and the circumstances surrounding the reported incident. Do not be inflammatory towards the reporter. Remain neutral and use sound interview practices. The reporter is a critical witness so work to establish a rapport with this person to help reduce awkwardness and allow for an exchange of information. If your department allows it, record the interview because verbal nuances may be caught by the recorder that be missed during the interview.

The interview should seek to gather the following information:

  • A detailed physical description of the offender including, clothing, tattoos, facial features, identifying marks, distinctive walk, odors, vehicle description, etc. Method of approach
  • Method of control
  • Amount/type of force/restraint of victim
  • Victim resistance
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Type and sequence of acts
  • Offender verbal activity
  • Offender attitudinal change
  • Items taken

Additional Investigation
The first responder should notify the proper investigative unit to conduct the further investigation. The additional investigation includes interviewing additional witnesses, recovering more physical evidence, referring the child and parents to counseling, interviewing the subject(s), sending evidence such as DNA to the crime laboratory, and preparing court documents.

Overall, it is important for officers to remember the victims and the trauma they have experienced when investigating a case of child sexual assault. While officers must be thorough in their investigation, they must also be sensitive and caring toward the victim.

About the Author: Matt Loux has been in law enforcement for more than 20 years and has a background in fraud, criminal investigation, as well as hospital, school, and network security. Matt has researched and studied law enforcement and security best practices for the past 10 years.

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