Legal Process

The legal system is involved in three different types of child sexual abuse cases: 
  1. Criminal cases. The goal of criminal cases is to protect the community, not just the child who has been abused. The prosecutor decides whether to file or dismiss charges.
  2. Private civil cases, such as custody cases, restraining orders, or personal injury suits. The goal of private civil cases is the best interest of the child and/or financial restitution for emotional and physical costs related to abuse.The parents or guardian bring the suit and make decisions about the case.
  3. Child protection cases. The goal is to protect the safety and well-being of the child victim. If evidence is present that the parent or caregiver has abused the child, a government agency files the legal action. A guardian ad litem will be appointed to represent the child (at the government's expense). Decisions may be made to remove the child from the parent's home and place the child in temporary custody of a foster home or other facility.

The court process involves an investigative phase, followed prosecution and trial, if evidence of abuse is found.

  • Investigative Phase. Different agencies will be involved to determine if sexual abuse occurred, who abused the child, where it occurred, and how to protect the child. A medical assessment will determine if the child has injuries or sexually transmitted disease. Decisions at this point include: whether child needs medical exam/interview, whether to cooperate with Law Enforcement and Department of Human Services/Child Welfare, whether to cease contact with abuser, and the need for counseling. This is a difficult part of the process for the victim. He or she will have conflicted feelings about the abuser, feel guilty about the disclosure, be embarrassed about the abuse, and feel responsible. If enough evidence is not found, the case will not proceed, and services will cease. Ask for help from a Victim Advocacy group in your community. Potential recourse includes: civil protective orders, obtaining financial assistance, and counseling for the victim and for yourself. When a case is dropped, the offender is not held accountable, and the victim and mother/family may feel betrayed. Professionals may believe the abuse occurred. You may believe the abuse occurred. However, it requires evidence for the case to proceed to trial.
  • Trial. If evidence is found, and the case goes forward, attorneys will prepare for trial. Few cases actually go to trial, however, because most are settled prior to the trial date. The offender will plead to a lesser charge in criminal court. A negotiated settlement may occur in civil court. Out-of-court settlements help the family move forward. However, both plea bargains and negotiated settlements may cause the family to feel that the offender was not punished for the crime. If the case goes to trial, the child/adolescent will testify in court. Children require preparation for the trial, and it is important for them to know that the abuser cannot have contact with them and would have penalties if the court order is violated. Safety measures are usually in place so that the child is not exposed to hostile witnesses in the waiting room. The Victim's Assistance Coordinator may help prepare the child for court and may offer a safe place for the child to wait in the Courthouse. Others, such as law enforcement and attorneys, may also assist the child in safety moving from place to place in the court. It is important that you know what is happening to the case, and that you have a voice in the proceedings. Victim Impact Statements allow you and the child to speak of the consequences associated with the abuse. Children need to know that, no matter what they say in court, they will be believed and supported. They need to again be reassured that the abuse was not their fault. Giving testimony in a trial is stressful. However, telling their story is also empowering to the victim.
  • Coping with Verdict. The end of the trial may not be the end of the legal process. If the offender is convicted, and if he or she is a family member, you may feel sadness or grief. If the offender plea bargained, you may be disappointed at the lesser consequences. If the offender is acquitted, you may feel angry, afraid, or sad. Post-trial support services are available after the court case. It is important to reassure the victim that the court outcome (dismissed, acquitted, or plea bargained) does not mean the abuser is innocent. The court did not have sufficient evidence for a greater consequence (punishment). The process is emotional for both victim and family members. After the trial, family, friends, and acquaintances may probe the child for details about the case. Mothers can communicate with family and friends not to ask the child invasive questions. The trial usually ends the legal process. However, a case may still be open in family court. The abuser may file an Appeal, although this event is less common.   

 See Legal Terminology.



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