The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) is committed to improving the justice systemís response to crimes against children. OJJDP recognizes that children are at increased risk for crime victimization. Not only are children the victims of many of the same crimes that victimize adults, they are subject to other crimes, like child abuse and neglect, that are specific to childhood. The impact of these crimes on young victims can be devastating, and the violent or sexual victimization of children can often lead to an intergenerational cycle of violence and abuse. The purpose of OJJDPís Crimes Against Children Series is to improve and expand the Nationís efforts to better serve child victims by presenting the latest information about child victimization, including analyses of crime victimization statistics, studies of child victims and their special needs, and descriptions of programs and approaches that address these needs.

When parents assault or molest their children, it is conventionally thought of as child abuse and, therefore, a child welfare problem. However, these acts are also crimes, and a substantial portion of child abuse cases are investigated and adjudicated by the criminal justice system. Some cases are referred to law enforcement agencies by child welfare investigators, while others are reported directly to law enforcement by victims, families, and other concerned individuals.

Unfortunately, the law enforcement perspective on child abuse is greatly neglected. Most publicly available statistics on the problem come from child welfare agencies and describe child welfare system activities alone. Even such a basic fact as the percentage of cases that are reported to law enforcement agencies is not tallied by the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS), the main national system that measures and tracks child maltreatment.

Until recently, no law enforcement data were available to provide researchers with a criminal justice system perspective on child abuse equivalent to the child welfare system perspective provided by NCANDS. However, the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) for law enforcement agencies is being implemented to capture much more detailed information about crime and its victims. NIBRS will allow researchers to analyze incidents coming to the attention of police that involve child victims and parent or other caretaker perpetrators—incidents that are generally thought of as child abuse.

This Bulletin shows how NIBRS data can be used to describe police experience with child abuse. Analysis of aggregate NIBRS data from 12 States for 1997 and comparison with child welfare data reveal the following key findings:

  • Incidents of child abuse committed by parents and other caretakers make up about one-fifth (19 percent) of violent crimes against juveniles (ages 0–17) reported to the police and 4 percent of violent crimes against persons of any age.

  • The majority (73 percent) of these parent and other caretaker crimes are physical assaults, and 23 percent are cases of sexual abuse.

  • Child abuse constitutes more than one-half of the crimes against children age 2 or younger reported to the police.

  • Male offenders are responsible for three-quarters of the child abuse incidents reported to the police, including 92 percent of sexual assaults and 68 percent of physical assaults.

  • Thirteen percent of the episodes of parental assault against a child reported to the police are associated with an assault against a spouse or former spouse.

  • In spite of protocols in some States that require police notification about child maltreatment, there is evidence that police data tally only a fraction of physical and sexual abuse investigated and substantiated by child welfare authorities.

The large number of child abuse cases reported to law enforcement agencies suggests that more attention should be paid to how law enforcement agencies investigate these crimes and arrest and prosecute the offenders. How law enforcement handles cases of parental physical assault against children needs to be examined, particularly in light of recent policy debates over the arrest and prosecution of offenders who have committed other forms of domestic violence.

The Role of Law Enforcement in Child Abuse Cases

Child abuse can come to the attention of police in a variety of ways: from victims and their families, from concerned community members, from professionals such as teachers and doctors, and from other authorities such as child welfare agencies. Professionals in all States, and even ordinary citizens in some States, are mandated to report child abuse to responsible authorities. In some States, police are considered to be the responsible authority for reporting purposes, and in many States, statutes now require child welfare authorities to share all child maltreatment reports with law enforcement. Child welfare investigations substantiate or confirm about one-third of all child maltreatment reports. In some States, these investigations are conducted jointly by child welfare and police; in a few jurisdictions, responsibility for investigation lies with law enforcement only. Thus the police have become increasingly involved in child abuse cases, but their role in the reporting and investigation of child abuse can vary quite a bit from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

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Child Abuse Reported to the Police Juvenile Justice Bulletin May 2001