Child Abuse Case Investigations

Child abuse cases are highly delicate. An abuse report will start an investigation of the child's well-being. Its findings may lead to getting the child to a safer place.

Whether you suspect child abuse or face suspicion, you should understand what happens next. A report of child abuse triggers a legal process. Navigating this process can involve sensitive and complex issues. 

In this article, the following topics will be discussed in detail:

  • Investigating child abuse
  • Abusive vs. accidental injuries
  • Intervention and removal

During the process, the child's safety is the priority. Certain conditions may lead to immediate action to protect the child.

How Common Is Child Abuse?

Every year, over 600,000 children suffer from child abuse in the United States. Children with disabilities are particularly vulnerable. But child abuse cases are preventable. 

A total of 1,750 child fatalities in 2020 were due to abuse and neglect. In the past year, 1 out of 7 children experienced abuse or neglect. National child abuse numbers are likely to be underestimated since some cases remain unreported. To prevent the proliferation of this crime, it is crucial to understand and address the factors that place children at risk.

The Child Abuse Investigation Process

The Children's Advocacy Centers (CACs) coordinate the investigation of suspected abuse cases. Investigating child abuse and neglect is a critical issue for law enforcement officers. Often, law enforcement officers have difficulty determining the source of a child's injury. The CAC will assess whether the child's injury is intentional or accidental. The investigation will also check the child's mental health.

The U.S. Department of Justice released a guideline to help law enforcement officials differentiate between accidental or intentional physical abuse. The guide details crucial questions to ask when investigating the case. Initial questions that law enforcement officers ask are:

  • Whether the child is safe in the environment
  • Whether the child needs immediate medical help
  • Whether the child needs long-term protection

How Investigators Examine Abusive and Accidental Injuries

Children get bumps and bruises all the time. Whether they're playing sports or just running around at home, accidents happen.

But certain types of injuries are more commonly associated with abuse. Depending on the age of the child, there may be indicators that they have experienced trauma. For example, an elementary school-aged child might have difficulty sleeping or concentrating. A high school-aged child may engage in self-harm.

Signs of Accidental Injuries

Accidental injuries commonly occur along the bony parts of the body. This includes the knees, elbows, chin, and forehead. These accidental injuries are usually caused by less force compared to intentional injuries. Some exceptions would be motor vehicle accidents or falls.

Signs of Abusive Injuries

On the other hand, abusive injuries are found in "primary target zones." Primary target zones are areas like the back of the child's neck or behind the child's knees. Injuries around this area are viewed with suspicion. Thus, the child welfare officers involved will further investigate the issue.

Medical Intervention To Treat Child Abuse Injuries

If the child shows suspicious injury, law enforcement must immediately assess the situation. Crucially, the child must also receive medical attention. The officers should also identify witnesses and collect pieces of evidence, such as securing high-quality images and scaling the injury size.

A child suspected to be a victim of abuse will also have a medical evaluation performed. A pediatrics professional trained to examine an abused child will handle the case. If the injury is a medical emergency, the child will be brought to an emergency room.

Law enforcement officers will, however, stay with the child and their family. In non-emergency situations, the professional will schedule a medical evaluation. The timing of the medical exam is less critical. After a referral, the child should have a medical examination scheduled within one to three days.

During the medical examination, professionals will collect and provide evidence to law enforcement officers. These pieces of evidence will show whether the child sustained chronic or acute trauma. Many healthcare facilities have forensic nurses who are specially trained to work with child victims. They are also trained to collect evidence and testify in court.

Using Evidence of Child Abuse Cases in Court

The child's injury is not itself conclusive evidence of abuse. A district attorney must clearly present medical evidence and information. They may also present medical testimony, pictures, or X-rays. These pieces of evidence will help the judge and the jurors understand the issue.

The goal of presenting evidence and medical records is to educate the court. They must make an informed decision about the accused abuser's guilt or innocence. The court should assess the history of how the child abuse and neglect occurred. The child's medical records—and testimony by medical professionals—will help the court determine whether the child suffered abuse (as defined by law) or whether the injury was accidental. Such information also aids the court in reaching an accurate conclusion.

Removal of the Child

Out-of-home care (also called foster care) is a court-monitored process that removes the child from their home due to child maltreatment.

Before the child is removed, child welfare services should make reasonable efforts to contact the child's family members. In-home services may help maintain contact between the parent and child. This may happen through a referral by child protective services staff.

While the child resides in in-home care, the parents are offered services to address the issue that led to the child's removal. The intended purpose of this act is to prevent family separation. Human Services (or Child Protective Services) will assist the family with maintaining the child in the home.

But, if the child victim is still at risk, the court may order the child to be removed and placed into foster care. Court records will document the parents' efforts to fix the conditions that led to the child's removal from the home.

The child will be placed in the custody of the local human or social services department. They will then stay with caregivers. Caregivers generally undergo an assessment and certification process. This process ensures that the caregivers are suitable to care for young children. Overall, the process considers the child's well-being.

In certain cases, Child Protection Services (CPS) may authorize the child's removal from the home. Removal happens after the issuance of a court order or in an emergency situation. If there is an immediate risk or evidence of child sexual abuse, investigators can remove the child. CPS may approve a suitable relative or family friend to provide child care. The child may reside with that person while the case progresses through court.

Report a Case of Child Abuse or Seek Legal Help

Child abuse and neglect is a serious matter. If a family member or someone you know suspects a child abuse case, please consider filing a report. Worse, if you suspect child sex abuse, reach out to the proper authorities immediately. Child Protective Services, or the equivalent agency in your state, will have available services and facilities in each state.

However, you may want to ensure your safety or better understand the case. In that case, please contact a family law attorney near you. A family law attorney can answer questions about suspected child abuse and neglect, sexual assault, and other domestic violence concerns.

Was this helpful?

Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • You can seek new child custody arrangements during an abuse case
  • Child abuse can affect legal rights to custody
  • An attorney can help create orders of protection

Always report suspected child abuse to law enforcement. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

Find a local attorney