Survey of Police Reporting and Help Seeking Among Families of Child Physical and Sexual Assault Victims (Police Reporting Survey)

Summary. Most crimes with juvenile victims are not reported to the police, and most child victims do not receive victim services, but the reasons for this have not been systematically studied. The purpose of the Police Reporting survey was to research this issue and provide concrete information to law enforcement agents and policy makers about the factors that contribute to police reporting of crimes with child victims and help seeking on their behalf, as well as the obstacles to reporting and help seeking. To accomplish this, researchers conducted interviews with a national sample of parents of recent child victims of physical and sexual assault to 1) describe their patterns of police reporting and help seeking, and 2) analyze the barriers to and facilitators of reporting and help seeking.


The Police Reporting Survey consists of interviews with 157 parents or other primary caretakers from a national sample of households in which a juvenile was physically or sexually assaulted in the past year. The respondents were recruited from participants in the Second National Incidence Study of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children (NISMART 2). Researchers for NISMART 2 conducted interviews with parents in a nationally representative sample of over 16,000 households with children, screening for, among other things, episodes of child assault. Interviewers for the Police Reporting Survey conducted follow-up interviews with parents who reported that children in their households had been assaulted in the past year. These interviews were conducted between May 1999 and May 2000.

When NISMART 2 interviewers identified an assault victim, they obtained information about the details of the incident and asked the respondent parent to consent to being contacted for a Police Reporting Survey follow-up interview. The follow-up interviews took place within a few weeks and consisted of an extensive series of questions about police reporting, law enforcement contact and victim service utilization. Interviewers for the Police Reporting Survey used an instrument developed for this project by researchers at the Crimes against Children Research Center. More detailed information about the methodology of the Police Reporting Survey can be found in the publications listed below.

Theoretical Model

As a first step to this project, researchers completed a literature review which included the development of a theoretical model of police reporting and help seeking for juvenile crime victims. The model focused on barriers to access to police reporting and victim services, including:

  • A reluctance by adults to define crime episodes with child victims or their consequences as serious, criminal, harmful or warranting intervention;
  • The variety of authorities, including parents and schools, which mediate between victims and law enforcement;
  • Developmental issues, such as the inability of very young victims to report and concerns about autonomy that may inhibit reporting among adolescents;
  • Attitudinal and emotional obstacles like concerns about privacy and stigma;
  • Miscellaneous other factors, like time and expense.

Data Analysis and Findings about Police Reporting

Analysis of the data collected in Police Reporting Survey resulted in findings that supported the theoretical model underlying the research. In addition to the factors described above, this model conceptualized that the barriers to and facilitators of police reporting operate in two stages. In the first stage, they inhibit or encourage the recognition that an episode is a crime – that it is something the police would be interested in. This is labeled the recognition phase. The second stage is the consideration phase because at this point other factors will be weighed as the victim or the victim's family decides whether or not to report the matter to the police.

CCRC researchers found that family recognition of the assault as a crime or police matter was more likely for episodes involving:

  • Adolescent (as opposed to pre-adolescent) victims
  • Adult and multiple offenders
  • Physical injuries
  • Female victims
  • Families who had prior experience with the police

Among families who recognized the episode as a crime or police matter, actual reporting to police was more likely when:

  • The perpetrator was an adult
  • The family had been advised to report
  • The family had prior experience with the police
  • The family believed the police would take the episode seriously
  • The family believed the victim was still in danger from the perpetrator
  • Also, reporting was less likely for assaults that occurred at school

The findings, particularly the two regarding prior experience with the police and beliefs that the police would take the assault seriously, suggest that communities could enhance the reporting of juvenile victimizations by increasing the frequency of police-community contact, and by having police emphasize their interest in and the seriousness of offenses against juveniles.


The following recommendations were formulated as a result of Police Reporting Survey findings, and have been promoted through the publication of papers and presentations at conferences. We recommend that police:

  • Publicly emphasize their interest in receiving reports from juveniles
  • Deploy more officers trained to worked with juvenile victims
  • Work with schools
  • Provide incentives to report
  • Publicize existing youth friendly staff and procedures
  • Work to undermine the youth code that prevents adolescents from reporting crimes
  • Publicize the availability of crime victim compensation funds
  • Make victim services more accessible
  • Fast track handling of crimes with juvenile victims
  • Emphasize restorative justice

Data Analysis and Findings about Mental Health Help Seeking

Further analysis of data from the Police Reporting Survey looked at the factors that inhibit and facilitate the receipt of mental health treatment among juvenile crime victims. We found that:

  • 22% of parents had thought about getting professional counseling for their child victims, and 20% of child victims actually received counseling;
  • Half of families who thought about getting counseling for their child did not follow through;
  • Nearly half of the victimized children who actually received counseling did so without their families reporting that they considered getting counseling for their child;
  • The level of symptoms and parent-child relationship factors were related to considering counseling which was in turn strongly related to actually getting counseling;
  • Independently related factors included the victimization occurring at school and the victim being perceived as at fault to some degree. Advice to get counseling and medical insurance also played a role.

These findings suggested two pathways to counseling:

  • An endogenous one via parental concern about symptoms and the parent-child relationship;
  • An exogenous one via schools’ interventions with victims who are seen as potential problems.

Recommendations about Help Seeking

The following recommendations about help seeking were formulated as a result of Police Reporting Survey findings. We recommend:

  • Increasing public awareness of how, where and from whom mental health services for juveniles can be obtained, including advertising of services by mental health providers and programs of education and public awareness about the seriousness of crime victimization and its potential impact on juvenile victims;
  • Police, medical professionals, child welfare agencies, school personnel and other professionals who come into contact with juvenile crime victims promote help seeking by recommending mental health consultation to victimized youth and their families;
  • Better health insurance coverage for mental health services for juvenile crime victims;
  • Increased assignment of and resources to mental health personnel in schools as well as education to school personnel about the mental health effects of crime victimization on youth.

Related Publications

Finkelhor, D., Wolak, J., & Berliner, L. Child Maltreatment, 6(1): 17-30. Learn More
Finkelhor, D. & Wolak, J. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 18(2): 103-128. Learn More
Most crimes with juvenile victims are not reported to the police, and most child victims do not receive victim services, but the reasons for this have... Learn More
Kopiec, K., Finkelhor, D., & Wolak, J. Child Abuse & Neglect. 28: 45–59. Learn More