Legal Criminal Investigation of Victimization of Children Essay

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The criminal investigation of crimes against children is unique compared to the criminal investigation of crimes against other age groups. It is unique because of the wide range of crimes against children, the different systems that are involved, and the impact of the legal system on children. Given the vulnerable position of children, it is essential that the legal system hold offenders accountable while not retraumatizing child victims. Because juveniles are among the most victimized age group in the population, it is critical to understand how the legal system responds to the victimization of children.

Types Of Victimization

There is a wide range of types of victimizations that children experience. Children may be victims of conventional crime (e.g., assault, property crime, theft), victims of witnessing domestic violence, custodial abductions, or victims of child maltreatment (e.g., physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, emotional abuse). Moreover, victimized children may come into contact with the criminal justice system because they have been arrested for criminal delinquent behavior or picked up for running away or truancy. Large percentages of children arrested for such crimes have histories of victimization that may contribute to the delinquent behavior. Not only do children experience a wide range of victimizations, but also children experience rates of victimization that are substantially higher than adults.

Legal System

The legal response to the wide array of crimes that child victims experience is complicated because there are two distinct systems that can be involved: the criminal justice system and the child protection system. The criminal justice system investigates conventional crimes, while the child protection system investigates child maltreatment by perpetrators in a caretaking responsibility. Little data are available about the criminal investigations for all the types of victimizations. For example, the percentage of arrests or prosecutions that involve child victims is not known. Furthermore, many crimes against children are not reported. Therefore, the information that is available from the criminal justice system describes only a fragment of the crimes committed against children. Conventional crimes, as well as some types of physical and sexual abuse, are referred to the criminal justice system. Police make an arrest in a minority of juvenile victim crimes, and arrests are more common when the crime involves a weapon or a serious offense. Many of the offenders who victimize juveniles are other juveniles. Generally, there are special institutions to handle juvenile offenders. One type of victimization, however, that has received greater emphasis in the legal system is sexual assaults against children.

Prosecution Of Sexual Assaults Against Children

The prosecution of sexual assaults against children is similar to prosecution of other crimes. After prosecutors receive a referral they evaluate whether a crime has been committed and whether they can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. Prosecutors may decline a case because of lack of evidence. A case may be reopened later if evidence is obtained or a witness is able to testify. Some declined cases are closed and go no further in criminal court. Other cases may go to civil court. Even after a prosecutor accepts a case, a case may be dismissed or dropped. If a case is carried forward, defendants decide whether to plead guilty or go to trial.

Although there are similarities, there are many differences in the prosecution of sexual assaults against children and other crimes. First, the referral process is different. Two agencies can make referrals to the legal system: the police and child protection services. The extent to which these agencies are involved may further complicate the investigation process. The complicated process has led to the development of comprehensive multidisciplinary agencies, such as Children’s Advocacy Centers. Second, the prosecution of sex crimes against children may be difficult because of the lack of evidence. For example, often it is the word of the child victim versus that of the defendant. A successful prosecution also depends on the family’s commitment to prosecution and the capacity of the child to withstand the stress of a criminal trial.

Third, there have been a number of concerns raised about the impact of the legal system on the child victim. Concerns include the length of the legal process, the stress of retelling a horrible event, the impact on the family, especially if the defendant is a family member, and the embarrassment of the nature of what happened. These issues may have a potential negative impact on a child’s well-being and make the criminal investigation too much for a child to endure. Defense strategies such as challenging the child’s credibility, memory, suggestibility, and delays in reporting may make it particularly uncomfortable for children. Not all children, however, have a negative experience. Furthermore, there have been a number of innovations in how the legal system responds to the criminal investigation of the victimization of children.

Innovations In The Legal System

Because dramatic developmental differences exist for children, it is necessary to consider a child’s age when thinking about the legal system’s response to child victimization. First, because childhood is a time for development—emotional, cognitive, and biological— the same event may impact children in different ways depending on a child’s age.

Specific services, such as victim advocates, court school, special prosecution units, and vertical prosecution, are now in place in many jurisdictions and seem to have a positive impact in reducing child trauma sometimes associated with involvement in the legal system. Victim advocacy programs help to prepare victims, witnesses, and families for the court process. Court school programs often include roleplaying to talk through the legal process and tours of the courtroom. Special prosecution units have dedicated people to work on specific types of cases. Vertical prosecution means that one prosecutor handles a case at all stages of the criminal justice process.

Disposition Rates

Only a minority of sexual assaults against children are criminally prosecuted. Thus, the legal system does not come in contact with the vast majority of these types of crimes. Those cases that are prosecuted generally result in conviction, usually by a guilty plea. Child sexual abuse cases are less likely to have charges filed than felonies overall and other violent crimes, but the rate is similar to the rate for rape and sexual assault. Guilty pleas and trial rates for child sexual abuse cases are generally similar to these comparison categories. In some cases, a child has to testify during the criminal court proceedings.

In addition to the criminal prosecution of the perpetrator, the legal system (typically dependency courts) may be involved when a child victim of maltreatment has to be removed from her or his home. Again, this involvement impacts only a minority of cases.

Policy Issues

Child victims usually have access to services that compensate them for the costs associated with being a victim of crime, such as medical care, counseling, and replacing stolen items. It is not known to what extent child victims make use of such services. It is also important to consider what impact the legal system might have on child victims. Three impacts are particularly important: child interviews, therapeutic services, and family disruption. First, a child victim most likely will need to be interviewed—and this need may continue, especially if the case goes to trial. A number     of forensic interviewing programs now exist to enhance this process. Second, a child victim of a crime most likely would benefit from receiving therapeutic services. Third, depending on the nature of the crime, sometimes criminal investigation results in family disruption. All of the special nuances of criminal investigation should be weighed.

Future Directions

There is much to learn about the criminal investigation of crimes against children. This field is a relatively new area of research; only within the past decade has there been concentrated research in this area. Future efforts should consider why some cases are criminally prosecuted and the majority of cases are not prosecuted. Although there have been a number of innovations to help reduce the trauma that children sometimes experience with legal system involvement, there is a need to better understand the impact of such innovations. There is also a need to better understand the time it takes to reach a resolution in the criminal prosecution of child abuse.


  1. Cross, T. P., Walsh, W. A., Simone, M., & Jones, L. M. (2003). Prosecution of analysis of child abuse: A metaanalysis of rates of criminal justice decisions. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 4, 323–340.
  2. Finkelhor, D., Cross, T., & Cantor, E. (2005). The justice system for juvenile victims: A comprehensive model of case flow. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 6, 1–20.
  3. Goodman, G. S., Quas, J. A., Bulkley, J., & Shapiro, C. (1999). Innovations for child witnesses: A national survey. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 5, 255–281.
  4. Jones, L. M., Cross, T. P., Walsh, W. A., & Simone, M. (2005). Criminal investigation of child abuse: The research behind “best practices.” Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 6(3), 254–268.

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