NIBRS data confirm that large numbers of offenses against juveniles by caretakers (commonly thought of as child abuse) are, in fact, reported to the police. These incidents are predominantly physical assaults, involve more older than younger children, and involve more male than female caretakers. Only about one-half of these cases are associated with any recorded injury to the victim.
The fact that a large number of physical assaults by parents and other caretakers are referred to police every year is an important, if generally unrecognized, reality for the justice system that also raises questions about how these cases are being handled. Most of the research on how the justice system manages juvenile victims of caretaker offenses focuses on sex crimes (Cross, Whitcomb, and De Vos, 1995; Runyan et al., 1988). Many justice system reforms and innovations have been developed to deal with these sexual abuse cases, including the establishment of multidisciplinary teams and childrenís advocacy centers (Kolbo and Strong, 1997).
There is little indication in this literature that the majority of parent and other caretaker assaults that enter the justice system involve physical rather than sexual assault. If physical assaults are the predominant reported crime committed by parents and other caretakers against children, the handling of these offenses by the justice system merits more research and policy debate (Smith, 1995).
An active policy debate has occurred regarding the justice systemís handling of physical assaults between adult domestic partners. This debate involves questions of how aggressively the justice system should pursue these offenses and seek to arrest and prosecute offenders (Chalk and King, 1998; Ford and Regoli, 1993; Schmidt and Steury, 1989; Sherman, 1992). Policymakers in this domain have had to balance competing needs: to reinforce clear norms against domestic violence, to sanction offenders, to protect victims who have ongoing relationships with perpetrators, to empower and respect victims whose interests differ from those of the justice system, and to use limited justice resources efficiently. These needs all have parallels in dealing with physical assaults against children. Could more aggressive arrest and prosecution of caretakers who physically assault their children raise awareness about the problem, reinforce norms of conduct, reduce recidivism, and empower victims? Or would more aggressive action inhibit victim reporting, increase retaliation or anxiety about retaliation, and further damage the caretaker-child relationship? These issues need to be brought out, discussed, and researched as extensively as they have been in the area of spousal assault.
Reforms are currently under way that will also increase the salience of criminal justice issues in the child abuse domain. For example, some States (e.g., Florida) are expanding the role of law enforcement in the investigation of child abuse, giving to sheriffs and police functions that were previously handled by child welfare authorities (Peacock, 1999). In addition, childrenís advocacy centers and multidisciplinary response teams are being implemented across the country, further involving the criminal justice system in child abuse investigations.