What Is Involved in a Child Abuse Investigation?

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  • Written By: Sandi Johnson
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 01 March 2020
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What happens during a child abuse investigation, at least in specific terms, varies greatly between jurisdictions. The events that constitute a child abuse investigation in the United States differ from those in Canada, Australia, France, or Spain. Likewise, investigative procedures between local municipalities vary based on state or local law, agency policies, and other factors. Although specifics may vary, the primary principles are the same. A child abuse investigation generally includes gathering facts about the reported instance of abuse, family histories, legal or criminal histories of the adults involved, medical records and histories, as well as personal interviews, psychological evaluations, and safety determinations.

No matter the specific local laws applicable to a suspected child abuse case, trained professionals typically begin with documentation relative to a reported incident. For example, a caseworker may review medical records from an emergency room visit or police reports on domestic violence calls. The second step typically involves personal interviews with parents, caregivers, medical or school professionals, as well as the child and his or her siblings. During interviews with suspected victims of abuse, the interviewer often looks for signs of child abuse, be they physical, mental, or sexual, and takes photographs of any questionable injuries or identifying markers of abuse. By reviewing records and conducting initial interviews, the caseworker or law enforcement official can determine the next steps in the investigation process.

Some municipalities have laws that regulate what must happen during a child abuse investigation. In such cases, responsible parties often must complete specific steps in a specific order, or as warranted by predetermined criteria. Other municipalities leave the course of a child abuse investigation up to the judgment of the representative for whatever agency is conducting the investigation. In the United States, the exact progression of a child abuse investigation is not mandated. Rather, caseworkers are given a specific period of time by which they must complete an investigation and make a decision on a child’s needs.

For example, according to the U.S. Department of Human Services, oversight agency for the Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS), regulations stipulate that upon a citizen reporting child abuse to appropriate agencies, DFCS has 24 hours to begin a formal investigation. Within 30 days, that child abuse investigation must be complete and a recommendation made regarding the child’s well-being and safety. During the 30-day investigatory period, DFCS workers must have in-person interviews with victims, perpetrators, and parents; visit the child’s home; review all necessary documentation and historical records; expand interviews to neighbors, teachers, and extended family; and make professional assessments on the child’s safety, likelihood of future abuse, and the needs of the family.

In the United Kingdom, most agencies involved in a child abuse investigation take a joint agency approach. This means that law enforcement professionals work together with child protective professionals to conduct an investigation. In such cases, a law enforcement officer may initially assess a child’s condition for signs of abuse and secure a suspected scene of abuse. As the child abuse investigation continues, child protective personnel assist with personal interviews and any necessary psychological evaluations, depending on the specific jurisdiction.

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