Ethical And Legal Issues in Interviewing Abused or Neglected Children Essay

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When a child may be a victim of severe abuse or neglect, there is a dual imperative: to provide services to ameliorate suffering and to punish the offender. To simultaneously achieve both goals may not be possible, resulting in an ethical dilemma regarding the obligations of professionals. One of the ways of reducing this dilemma is for professionals to work as a team, where joint decision making and collaborative work may produce the best results for child victims. This essay not only addresses the ethical conflict and professional codes involved with interviewing child victims but also describes forensic interviews and discusses the role of child advocacy centers.

Ethical Dilemma

Social work and legal ethics may be in conflict when the matter at hand is interviewing child victims, because of different goals of the social service and criminal justice systems. In 2004, approximately 3 million children were reported to child abuse and neglect hotlines across the United States. Approximately 87,000 children were determined to be victims of abuse or neglect. When a report suggests serious injury due to physical abuse, sexual abuse, or severe neglect, some states require that a district attorney decide whether a prosecutor or child protective services worker will oversee the investigation. Legal and ethical implications follow from this decision, because social workers, unless they are working for a prosecutor as a forensic specialist, and law enforcement personnel have different objectives. Social workers are concerned mainly with providing services to ameliorate the effects of victimization and to rehabilitate families; law enforcement personnel and forensic social workers are concerned with acquiring information to aid in the apprehension and punishment of offenders.

Professional Ethics

The ethical codes that guide the practice of social workers and attorneys create an obligation for each to serve their clients. When an attorney is serving a prosecutorial function, the attorney’s client is his or her governmental employer. The attorney is charged with protecting the public by enabling the apprehension and prosecution of criminals. For social workers the question “Who is the client?” is not as easily answered. Whether employed in the private or public sector, social workers have an ethical obligation to their clients, to the agency that employs them, and, for some in the private sector, to a unit of government that financially supports the services they provide. For a social worker, conflict may result because public policy requires a worker to temporarily set aside his or her concern for providing treatment-focused services in favor of the state’s interest in prosecuting offenders. As acknowledged in Ethical Standard 1.01 of the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers:

Social workers’ primary responsibility is to promote the well-being of clients. In general, clients’ interests are primary. However, social workers’ responsibility to the larger society or specific legal obligations may on limited occasions supersede the loyalty owed clients, and clients should be so advised.

Forensic Interviews

In the 1960s, when laws mandating reporting of child abuse and neglect were being drafted, an issue under discussion was whether an investigation should be conducted by social workers or police. The decision favoring social workers was the result of the profession’s rehabilitative mission, and the notion that child abuse and neglect involving family members should not be treated in the criminal justice system. In recent years there has been a shift away from the original view to one that favors criminal prosecutions. Joint social worker–police investigations are becoming common; and legislation that requires child protective agencies to report to the police or to a prosecutor’s office serious cases of abuse or neglect has been enacted in the majority of states. This shift has led to a growth in forensic social work.

A forensic social worker applies the principles and practices of social work for the purpose of law, whereas a clinical social worker applies the same principles for the purpose of diagnosis and treatment. For the clinical social worker, activities such as interviewing, assessment, and evaluation are framed by knowledge of child development and theories of clinical intervention. For the forensic worker, these activities are undertaken with knowledge of the legal framework that surrounds particular areas of practice and applicable legal principles, including (a) legislation, such as that addressing child abuse and neglect; (b) the legal processes involved in prosecuting cases of child abuse or neglect; (c) the structure and functioning of the social service and court systems in the practitioner’s state; (d) the roles played by the parties to a court proceeding, such as judges, attorneys, and advocates for children; and (e) an understanding of what evidence is admissible and how evidence is used in court.

Interest in forensic social work was spurred, in part, by the role that social workers played in the criminal prosecution of teachers and administrators charged with sexually abusing children in daycare settings. For example, in August 1983, the mother of a child at the McMartin preschool reported to the police that she thought that her son might have been abused. Before the investigation was completed, prosecutors alleged that school officials and teachers had molested hundreds of children over the course of 5 years. There were no convictions. Douglas J. Besharov, in a discussion of the McMartin case, pointed out that jurors expressed concern that the children’s statements had been undermined by investigative and prosecutorial missteps that created doubt for the jurors as to whether the children had actually gone through the horrible things they described or whether they imagined them following prompting by adult interviewers. The McMartin case and several other similar cases have raised the specter that children were coerced into giving false testimony and have served to heighten a concern with developing new ways to interview children.

Child Advocacy Centers

Research has shown that a child’s testimony can be coerced by inappropriate interviewing techniques. These findings, coupled with the prosecutorial mishaps just discussed, gave rise to a movement to establish procedures to coordinate the investigation, prosecution, and treatment of child sex abuse victims. A number of states have established child advocacy centers.

Common characteristics of child advocacy centers are that they (a) are neutral, child-friendly facilities where trained forensic staff interview children in a manner that is neutral, whose purpose is fact finding, and where interviews are coordinated to avoid duplicative efforts; (b) provide for the audioor videotaping of interviews; (c) have policies and procedures that support culturally competent practice so that staff are able to appreciate, understand, and interact with members of diverse populations within the local community; (d) have protocols that allow professionals to collaborate in conducting joint interviews and in preparing evaluations; (e) have multidisciplinary review teams that meet regularly to review case progress and whose members include mental health, law enforcement, and medical personnel, representatives from the office of the prosecuting attorney, and from state or local social services, and a victim’s advocate; and (f) have the capacity to provide crisis intervention services, make referrals for medical examinations and mental health therapy, and have methods established for follow-up of referred cases.


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  2. Investigation dispositions of child maltreatment: 2004. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  3. Besharov, D. J. (1986). Child abuse: Arrest and prosecution decision making. American Criminal Law Review, 24, 315–327.
  4. Ceci, S. J., & Friedman, R. D. (2000). The suggestibility of children: Scientific research and legal implications. Cornell Law Review, 86, 39–71.
  5. Doris, J., Mazur, R., & Thomas, M. (1995). Training in child protective services: A commentary on the Amicus Brief of Bruck and Ceci. Psychology, Public Policy and Law, 1, 479–491.
  6. National Association of Social Workers. (n.d.). Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers. Retrieved from
  7. Stein, T. J. (in press). Child welfare and the law (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: Child Welfare League of America.
  8. Warren, A. R., & Marsil, D. F. (2002). Why children’s suggestibility remains a serious concern. Law and Contemporary Problems, 65, 127–147.

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