UNH Crimes Against Children Research Center

Full report "Child Abuse Reported to the Police"


UNH Researchers Call for More Attention to Police Role in Child Abuse Investigations

By Erika Mantz
UNH News Bureau

May 23, 2001

Editors and news directors: Professor David Finkelhor is available for comment at 603-862-2761.

DURHAM, N.H. -- Cases of child abuse committed by parents and other caretakers now constitute one-fifth of the violent crimes against children that are being reported to and investigated by police, according to a new report by University of New Hampshire researchers. The report, issued yesterday by the U.S. Department of Justice, calls for greater attention to be given to the growing role that police are playing in child abuse investigation and intervention.

Child abuse has traditionally been handled by child protection agencies not connected to law enforcement. In recent years, however, particularly in the wake of widening disclosures of intrafamily sexual abuse, police have been getting increasingly involved.

"The police role was readily accepted for these sex crimes," says David Finkelhor, study coauthor and a professor of sociology at UNH. But data from the new analyses suggest three-quarters of what is coming to the attention of police now are physical assaults by caretakers, not sexual abuse. The debate that is needed, according to Finkelhor, concerns whether police can play a constructive role in these non-sexual offenses as well.

"We've had an intensive policy debate about what role police should play in spousal assaults," says Finkelhor. "Many of the same issues apply to parental assaults against children, but we haven't discussed those nearly as much. The logic for aggressive police intervention in spousal assault was the idea that society needed to convey the message that this was a serious offense with potentially serious penalties. It is possible that the involvement of police could be an effective deterrent to assaults against children as well."

On the other hand, skeptics are concerned that police are not sufficiently trained and sensitive to issues of child wellbeing, that police intervention might aggravate rather than improve parenting, and that the prospect of police investigation may inhibit the reporting of abuse.

"These are legitimate concerns," says Finkelhor, who points out that similar ones were raised in the debate about aggressive police intervention in spousal violence. "We need to find out through experimentation and research whether these disadvantages outweigh possible benefits, or whether there are ways to minimize the disadvantages and maximize the benefits."

According to the study, some states have passed laws mandating the referral of child abuse cases from child protection officials to police. In many communities, police and child protection work together in interdisciplinary teams or child advocacy centers to jointly investigate and intervene. A few states, like Florida, are experimenting with turning over child protection investigations entirely to the police and using child protection staff for service delivery only.

"Child Abuse Reported to the Police" was released by the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and written by Finkelhor, director, and Richard Ormrod, research professor, of the UNH Crimes Against Children Research Center. The full report, "Child Abuse Reported to the Police," is available on-line at http://ojjdp.ncjrs.org/pubs/missing.html#187238. To contact Finkelhor, call 603-862-2761.

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