When a child discloses sexual abuse
, both Law Enforcement
and Department of Human Services/Child Welfare
(DHS/CW) investigate the case. The mandate of DHS is to protect children, and this mandate can be found in state and federal laws. Typically DHS intervenes when the offender is the caregiver of the child. Upon receiving a report, DHS has a specified time frame to investigate, usually within 24-48 hours, to determine maltreatment of a child. The social services specialist will confer with other professionals and with collateral contacts (e.g., parents, other children, neighbors). If the child is in danger, DHS takes steps to insure the safety and protection of the child. The first choice is the child's remaining in the home and removal of the offender
. When the child's safety is not probable in the home, then the child must be removed and placed in another relative's home, foster care, or a court-approved facility.
Following the report to law enforcement or disclosure made by the child, law enforcement and DHS will visit the child in the home and/or in the school and obtain sufficient information to determine direction in the case. A DHS social service specialist will interview family
members to assess willingness and ability to protect
the child. Prior reports of abuse are factors, although not determinative. The child may be removed from the home if the offender cannot be arrested and refuses to leave the home; if the mother is unsupportive and/or unable to provide safe care to the child (e.g., substance dependence, domestic violence, mental health problems); or if the home is not "minimally adequate" to meet a child's needs (e.g., garbage/filth, lack of necessary provisions, unsafe).
If these factors are present, it is in the child's best interest to be removed from the family
home until the Trial
and/or other determinations are made regarding the case and the child's safety. Law Enforcement and DHS will collaborate to place the child in protective custody based on the determination that the child's health, safety, and welfare is jeopardized. Arrangements will be made for the child to be placed in a licensed facility, the care of relatives, or another placement authorized by the court. DHS will file a petition with a court requesting the child be placed in Protective Custody
. If the child is not removed, the offender should leave the home voluntarily, if not arrested.
The investigation will proceed, and a structured interview will be conducted with the child victim. If the community has a Child Abuse Assessment Center
, law enforcement or DHS will schedule an appointment for the child on an emergency basis. At the appointment the child will receive a forensic medical examination by physician
specially trained in sexual abuse assessment. A trained sexual abuse interviewer
will conduct a structured interview with the child victim and will also interview the mother/caregiver of the child. During the time of the evaluation interviews, both Law Enforcement and DHS will observe, either through glass or via video tape, the interview as it is conducted. Based on findings present in the interview, they may collaborate regarding next steps in the investigation and/or immediate actions to take. The prosecutor
will be apprised of the results of the interview and evidence found to substantiate the abuse. DHS determination of a case as founded requires objective evidence to confirm the allegation that sexual abuse has occurred. Medical evidence, emotional and psychological evidence, child's testimony, witness observation (e.g., sibling, other family member), and collateral information will aid in that determination.
DHS will make a decide that the case is:
- Founded - Determination that the allegation of abuse is justified by evidence produced during the investigation, and the child has been and is at risk of abuse.
- Unfounded - Determination that the investigation did not produce enough substantial evidence to conclude the child has been or is at risk of abuse.
- Unable to determine - Not enough information was produced during the investigation to make a decision that the child is or has been at risk.
If the case is founded, and abuse occurred in the home, a determination will be made regarding the non-offending parent's "failure to protect." The custodial parent will be assessed regarding ability to protect the child from further abuse and maintain the safety of the child in the home. If the parent appears unable physically or emotionally to appropriately care for the child, Child Welfare will file a Dependency Petition with the court, alleging types of harm done to the child. Dependency Fact-Finding Hearings may be scheduled regarding allegations of the Dependency Petition. A Dependency Fact-Finding Hearing or trial will consider the allegations stated in the Dependency Petition and will occur within 75 days of filing the dependency petition unless a continuance is granted by the court. A Dependency Disposition Hearing usually occurs within 2 weeks after dependency is established. The purpose is to determine the child's placement, visitation, and services offered to the child and family. DHS/CW provides a plan to the court regarding placement and reunification services. The plan and disposition order will provide details regarding actions and services (e.g., parenting classes, counseling, substance abuse treatment).
If the case is unfounded, it simply means that not enough evidence was found to determine that abuse occurs. This does not mean that abuse did not occur. The evidentiary requirements for prosecution of sex offenses is relatively rigorous. Even medical findings can be argued to have alternative causation. The evidence must be substantial if the prosecutors goes forward to Trial. The prosecutor does not want to try a case in which he or she is unable to gain a conviction.
If the case is unable to determine, it simply means that not enough evidence was found to make a decision that a child was abused. It does not mean that abuse did not occur. Law Enforcement and DHS will not be involved. It will be the mother's responsibility to maintain the child's safety and protect her from further abuse.