Until the mid-1960s, the police handled most
cases of child abuse and neglect, but only a small fraction of all
cases--usually those involving severe maltreatment or death--came to
their attention. What happened in the family was regarded as largely
a private matter, and there were no laws requiring the reporting of
abuse. However, with the discovery of the "battered child syndrome"
by the medical community and subsequently by the mass media, child
abuse came to be defined as a social problem needing social
intervention and treatment. Recognizing that law enforcement agencies
can play a central role in protecting abused and neglected children,
an increasing number of states have amended their child abuse laws and
procedures to provide for a greater police presence in child abuse
cases. This study was conducted to document municipal and county law
enforcement agencies' increased responsibilities for dealing with
child abuse, neglect, and sexual abuse and exploitation, and to
identify emerging police practices. The researchers investigated
promising approaches for dealing with child abuse and also probed for
areas of weakness that are in need of improvement.
Letters soliciting participation in the study were
sent to the chiefs of 89 municipal and 57 county law enforcement
agencies in the spring of 1988. In each participating agency, the
respondent was a person designated by the chief, which in most
departments was the sergeant or lieutenant in charge of the child
abuse squad or unit. In small departments, the specialized
investigator who handled most of the child abuse cases tended to be
assigned. Data collection was conducted by means of telephone
interviews. The survey instrument was designed to (1) describe
existing policies and procedures for identifying, investigating, and
otherwise handling cases of abuse and neglect, (2) explore the formal
and informal interagency cooperative arrangements for dealing with
abuse, and (3) identify promising departmental and individual
strategies for dealing with physical and sexual offenses against
children. The majority of questions were of a "yes/no"
format. Interviews took approximately one hour. In addition to the
interview information, the researchers requested written copies of
agency policies and statistical data on 1987 cases and their
A 50-percent random sample was selected.
Municipal and county law enforcement agencies in the
United States with populations over 100,000.
Law enforcement agencies.
The researchers collected information about
interagency reporting and case screening procedures, the existence and
organizational location of specialized units for conducting child
abuse investigations, actual procedures for investigating various
types of child abuse cases, factors that affect the decision to arrest
in physical and sexual abuse cases, the scope and nature of
interagency cooperative agreements practices and relations, the amount
of training received by agency personnel, and ways to improve agency
responses to child abuse and neglect cases.
Telephone surveys were completed with 122 (84
percent) of the 146 agencies selected. Statistical data were received
from 59 of the agencies, and copies of policies or guidelines from 67
of the agencies.