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Protecting Children: Investigating Child Abuse Cases

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In the kickoff to our series on April as National Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention Month, WUWF’s Dave Dunwoody talks to law enforcement professionals who investigate such cases.

Law enforcement agencies are charged to investigate child abuse cases, to see if there’s a violation of criminal law; also to identify and apprehend the offender, and file the appropriate criminal charges. That response, says the U.S. Department of Justice, needs to be consistent.

“One of the things that we always make a point in training [and] education is to make sure they know the language that we’re dealing with,” says Richard Hough -- a 30-year law enforcement officer who’s now a criminal justice instructor at the University of West Florida.

“Are we really talking about intimate partner violence between a spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend, or are we talking about something that might involve kids in the family?”

Hough says cases involving child victims differ from cases involving adults in a lot of important ways.

“A lot of that has to do with the physical and psychological maturity of the child,” says Hough. “Do they understand completely what it is that they have been going through? And oftentimes the answer to that is that they do not.”

Part of that is wrapped up in the training of how to develop rapport with the alleged victim and work their way through an interview and an investigation. Florida also has – along with most other states – has mandatory reporting laws when it comes to child abuse and neglect.

“For instance, emergency room personnel, schoolteachers and others – if they have suspicions of abuse of a child – that they do report this to the Department of Children and Families,” Hough said. “There is a time limit, usually of a day to three days during which the relevant agency must begin an investigation.”

Kids can be victims of various types of abuse – physically, sexually, emotional and mental, among others. Hough says part of that is a lack of boundaries when dealing with kids.

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Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media
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Richard Hough, criminal justice instructor at the University of West Florida.

“Some families have a difficult time because they think ‘well maybe we’re just being strict,’” Hough said. “Part of this is working your way through what is the norm of a family, what is the norm of society, etc. to try to actually get at facts of whether – in a legal sense – a child has been abused.”

Given that child abuse cases can spur strong reactions -- because many cops are parents themselves -- Hough says investigators nowadays don’t have to go it alone emotionally.

“That has a profound effect and that’s why law enforcement does a lot better job these days to try to assist officers,” said Hough. “And that goes for social work agencies assisting their case workers and the Department of Children and Families with their child abuse investigators. Making sure they have access to any kind of counseling or help they may need.”

Just like an investigation, child abuse cases are also handled differently when they go to trial compared to those involving adults says Hough, who worked for the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.

“So rather than the adversarial adult system of mainly focused on punishment, the juvenile system is mainly focused on rehabilitation and how to help everybody involved.”

Sentencing for child abuse convictions are distinctly different as well, especially when the offender is an adult and the victim a minor, because of the unique status of the juvenile as someone is more vulnerable.

“Who may be taken advantage of in so many different ways by an adult, and that is usually someone within the family or their circle of known people to the family,” said Hough. “It was recognized by the Legislature in virtually every state that there had to be tougher penalties.”

One of the obstacles for law enforcement is a kid who makes false claims of abuse out of anger with someone. UWF’s Richard Hough says that can muddy the investigative waters.

“As an investigator, one of the things that you are trained in is whether the statements of anybody involved – potential victim, witnesses or other family members – squares with the facts,” says Hough. “Do you have other information that would tend to support a statement is truthful, or does it raise some red flags?”

Child abuse is a community problem, according to the Department of Justice. No single agency has the training, manpower, resources, or legal mandate to intervene effectively in such cases, and no single agency is solely in charge of dealing with abused and neglected children. In the broadest sense, it has to be a team effort

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.