Each state summary highlights the required response of the state and local agencies that receive reports of suspected child abuse. State statutes vary in the level of detail they provide. Generally they include requirements addressing which entities, if any, the agency receiving the initial report must notify, the timeframe for this notification, and the requirements for investigating reported abuse.
States have two primary objectives when responding to allegations of child abuse: (1) ensuring the health, safety, and well-being of the child in question, taking the necessary steps to prevent further harm and (2) conducting an investigation to determine if the reported abuse constitutes a criminal act and, when appropriate, prosecuting offenders.
In most states, the responsibility for the initial investigation of reported child abuse falls to law enforcement, the state agency responsible for child protective services, or some combination of the two.
- Approximately one-half of all states require child protective services or some other human services agency to conduct the initial investigation.
- Local law enforcement agencies are responsible for conducting the initial investigation in approximately one-fifth of states.
- Although rare, in some states either law enforcement or child protective services may conduct initial investigations.
- In the remaining states, the investigation is a cooperative effort among multiple agencies.
In some states, the responsibility for the initial investigation depends on the relationship between the victim and the defendant. In North Carolina, the county Department of Social Services is generally responsible for the initial investigation of reported abuse. However, cases alleging abuse by a person not responsible for the care of the victim must be immediately forwarded to law enforcement and the district attorney’s office. Such provisions are common in states where the definition of child abuse does not include statutory rape. Consider Iowa, where statutory rape is only included in the definition of child abuse—thereby making it a reportable offense—if the victim is under 12 years of age. The agency responsible for receiving and investigating reports of child abuse (the Department of Human Services) must refer to the appropriate law enforcement agency all cases that would constitute child abuse if not for the fact that the act was perpetrated by someone not responsible for the care of the child.
Generally, law enforcement is responsible for conducting investigations into criminal acts, whereas child protective services and human services agencies are primarily concerned with the well-being of the victim. For example, in Rhode Island, the Department of Children, Youth, and Families investigates all reported abuse. If the Department’s investigation indicates that the child in question has been the victim of criminal abuse, the Department transfers the case to law enforcement so that it may initiate a criminal investigation.
Increasingly, states are emphasizing interagency collaboration in child abuse investigations. Almost one-half of states statutes require the involvement of multiple agencies in investigations. There is wide variation among states in the level of cooperation mandated by their statutes. Often law enforcement and child protective services maintain their traditional roles, and the laws focus on information sharing and maximizing the relative strengths of each agency. Nevada law states that if the initial evaluation of the report, conducted by the child welfare services agency, indicates that if an investigation is warranted, the agency and law enforcement must cooperate with one another and coordinate their investigation. Similarly, Hawaii statutes require the Department of Human Services to provide police and prosecutors with any relevant information that would aid in the investigation or prosecution of child abuse cases.
States can formalize such cooperation by requiring relevant agencies to develop a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for responding to reported abuse. In Ohio, the county public children services agency (usually the Department of Job and Family Services) is responsible for preparing the MOU. The MOU must delineate the roles and responsibilities of each partner and establish processes for coordinating investigations. The agency must ensure that the following officials sign the MOU: a juvenile judge in the county; the county peace officer, chief municipal peace officers, and local other law enforcement officers that handle abuse cases; the prosecuting attorney of the county; and the county humane officer. The primary goal of Ohio’s MOU is to eliminate unnecessary and redundant interviews with victims.
Other states require that multi-disciplinary teams assume responsibility for the investigative process. The District of Columbia Code mandates that all child sexual abuse investigations be conducted by a multi-disciplinary team that must include at least one representative from: law enforcement, social services, child advocacy centers, and the city and federal prosecutors’ offices. Additional individuals eligible for inclusion in multi-disciplinary teams include: representatives from the public schools, mental and physical health practitioners, child development specialists, and victim counselors. Teams’ efforts are to be governed by a written protocol outlining investigative responsibilities, prosecutorial procedures, and treatment options and services for both victims and defendants.