Abstract: This chapter will provide an overview of child victimization, its effects, and the need for services and program strategies critical to help the child and his or her family in recovery. This chapter is presented in two sections. Section One addresses the broad scope of child victimization and its effects; emotional and communicative levels of children based upon age; and appropriate responses for general support services. Section Two focuses on providing support and services to child victims and witnesses if they are required to participate in the criminal justice process.
Learning Objectives: Upon completion of this chapter, students will understand the following concepts:
1. The types of child abuse and neglect most commonly reported.
2. The emotional consequences of children who witness or experience victimization.
3. The need for specialized communication skills when working with child victims.
4. Appropriate curricula, materials and resources to better prepare child victims/witnesses for court.
Section One: General Overview of Child Victimization
"So long as little children are allowed to suffer,
there is no true love in the world" (Isadora Duncan).
Every day in America, children are victimized. They are beaten, sexually abused, murdered, and neglected by strangers, friends and family members. Children not targeted for physical acts of victimization are often victimized by emotional neglect or abuse, or by witnessing the murder, rape or robbery of family members and friends. Their childhoods are seemingly stolen from them as they are forced to deal with emotions, fears and losses that adults often find hard to face. In working with child victims, either as victims or witnesses, it is important to remember that:
Historical Overview Of Child Maltreatment
and Enactment Of Laws Protecting Children
Maltreatment of children is deeply entwined with historical values
and perspectives. The concept of child maltreatment has been
defined and redefined throughout history. Society has slowly
evolved from viewing children as property, subject to the whims
of the family and society, to at least recognizing that children
may have rights of their own (Tower, 1993).
Throughout history, children have been seen as the property of their parents. They have been abused, maimed or killed by their parents with no legal consequences. They have been sold or loaned into a life of indentured labor and abandoned on doorsteps with no guarantee for care. For centuries, infanticide was an accepted means for ridding the mother or the family of an unwanted burden. Parents were not held legally responsible to provide food, clothing or shelter for children.
Many children were forced through cultural or economic factors to assume adult roles while they were still very young. Physical punishment of children has long been encouraged through religious and societal forces.
Reforms for child protection have been slow. Long lasting reforms were not seen in America until the end of the 1800s. Settlement houses ensuring food and shelter for children were opened, tentative labor laws protecting children were enacted, social service agencies began to emerge and in 1875, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC) was formed.
It was through the direct efforts of the SPCC that issues surrounding
children and their right to protection began to take hold. In
1912, the White House formed the Children's Bureau to oversee
the welfare of the nation's children. The Children's Welfare League
was established in 1915 and, in 1930, the Social Security Act
was amended to mandate child welfare and protective services.
The late 1950s and early 1960s served as a pivotal point in child
physical safety when the issue of child physical abuse surfaced.
Until this time, it was generally accepted that a parent had
the right to discipline a child as he or she saw fit. In 1972,
the National Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse was established
and in 1973, the federal government saw a need to become involved
in the issue. In 1974, The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment
Act was enacted by Congress to provide government funding
of the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. For the first
time, federal assistance was given to studying and identifying
the problem of child abuse and neglect.
Oversight for the Center was placed with the Department of Health,
Education and Welfare. Since the Act's passage, numerous
other legislative packages have been enacted by all states in
the detection, reporting and treatment of child abuse including
Victims of Crime Act funding, through the Children's
Justice Act Amendments of 1986. Funding has also become more
readily available for the continued study of child abuse and neglect.
Many national, state and local organizations have been established
to aid in the education of protective services professionals and
detection and the delivery of services to America's child victims.
Types Of Child Victimization
There are five categories of child abuse and neglect. These categories are:
In some cases, all five forms of abuse occur, while in some instances
only one form of abuse occurs. Abuse of children knows no bias.
It is found in rich families as well as poor. It is practiced
by both educated and uneducated citizens. It knows no race, cultural
or religious boundaries. It is found in all cities, communities
and rural environments. Child abuse is committed by family members,
community leaders, acquaintances and strangers. And unfortunately,
it does not discriminate against its victims. Victims of child
abuse can be of either gender and of any age. It is an insidious
crime that affects the entire nation but, most importantly, it
often destroys the lives of its victims.
(Portions of the following five sections concerning forms of child abuse excerpted from For kids sake: A child abuse prevention and reporting kit. Oklahoma State Department of Health, Office of Child Abuse Prevention, Guidance Services.)
Physical abuse is most often classified as the non-accidental injury of a child under the age of 18 by a parent or caretaker. Non-accidental injuries may include beatings, shaking, burning, immersion in scathing water, broken bones, internal injuries, human bites, cuts, and bruising or other injuries inflicted on children. Physical abuse occurs when the parent or caregiver willfully injures, causes or allows the child to be injured, tortured, or maimed, or when unreasonable force is used upon a child. Abuse may also result from over discipline or from punishments that are too severe. Physical abuse of children is rarely a singular incident but an action that is repeated over and over. Physical abuse can result in the permanent damage, scarring or death of children.
In many states, parents and care givers do not have to physically
abuse the child to be guilty of physical child abuse. In these
states, statutes permit parents to be charged with child physical
abuse if they have knowledge of, but fail to protect the child
from physical abuse from others, i.e., grandparents, boyfriends,
Indicators of Physical Abuse
Physical indicators of physical abuse may include:
Behavioral indicators displayed by children may include:
Child Trauma Reaction to Physical Abuse
The abusing parent will often cast blame for the abuse at the
child. The child may feel that he or she is bad and deserves the
abuse. Some children only know family interactions through violence.
To these children, they may feel that the physical abuse equates
with love from the adult role model. Many children of physical
abuse tend to project an air of timidness or shyness. He or she
may physically cower at any sign of confrontation, or may become
overly aggressive with friends, siblings or peers.
Neglect is defined as the chronic failure of a parent or
caretaker to provide a child under the age of 18 with basic needs
such as food, clothing, shelter, medical care, educational opportunity,
protection and supervision. It is estimated that the incidence
of child neglect in the United States may be as much as five times
greater than that of physical abuse. Reasons for neglect, in
addition to the most obvious of a determined, willful act on the
part of a parent or care giver, can include: poverty, lack of
education, cultural beliefs and customs, mental or emotional illness,
and/or a lack of socialization skills on the part of the parent.
Indications of Neglect
Physical indicators may include:
Behavioral indicators of neglect may manifest as:
Assumes primary adult responsibilities such as in the care of younger children and reports no adult oversight in the home.
Child Trauma Reaction to Neglect
Children may mimic inappropriate behavioral characteristics of
older children in the neighborhood due to lack of supervision;
have poor self-esteem due to lack of parental support; have inappropriate
societal values due to lack of parental involvement; and harbor
deep embarrassment of his/or her family's financial circumstances
and/or lifestyle around peers.
There are two forms of child emotional maltreatment recognized by mental health professionals -- emotional abuse and emotional neglect. Emotional neglect is the consistent failure of a parent or caretaker to provide a child with appropriate support, attention and affection. Emotional abuse is a chronic pattern of behaviors in which the child is belittled, humiliated or ridiculed. Both forms of maltreatment will most often result in the impaired psychological growth and the development of the child. It is estimated that about one million cases of emotional abuse occur each year. Typically, emotional abuse will be coupled with other forms of abuse, but can and does occur as the only form.
Examples of emotional abuse may include:
Treating the child differently from other children in the household.
Emotional abuse may be suspected when a child exhibits a combination
of impaired development, destructive behavior or chronic complaints
that cannot be explained medically or circumstantially. It should
be noted, however, that careful elimination of medical, genetic
or learning disorders should be made prior to acting upon suspicions
or taking action for emotional abuse. The indicators for emotional
abuse can mimic many medical or emotional conditions other than
emotional abuse; therefore, confirming identification is extremely
Indicators of Emotional Abuse
Physical indicators for emotional abuse may include:
Behavioral indicators may include:
Child Reactions to Emotional Abuse
Children who are subjected to emotional abuse may feel unworthy. Children may:
On the opposite extreme, emotionally neglected children may act
out in socially unacceptable behavior -- "If I'm going to
be punished, I might as well be guilty of the crime."
Child sexual abuse is the exploitation of a child or adolescent for the sexual and control gratification of another person. It includes acts such as vaginal and/or anal digital or penile penetration, oral-genital stimulation, fondling, exhibitionism, voyeurism, verbal stimulation, and/or the involvement of a child in prostitution or the production of pornography. Sexual abuse of children is perpetrated by family members, trusted family friends and acquaintances, child-related, community program personnel, day care workers and other paid caregivers, and strangers. Child sexual abuse is practiced across all ages, races, religious, cultural and socio-economic classes of people.
The real tragedy of child sexual abuse is that children often tend not to disclose it when it first happens, and the abuse can continue over and over, sometimes for many years.
As shocking as these figures are, research points to the sad conclusion that only a small fraction of sexual abuse cases are reported.
"Unmasking" is the accidental discovery of sexual abuse
by physical or emotional indicators. These indicators may include
finding bloodstains in underwear, physical exams unrelated to
the abuse but in which indications of abuse are found, and by
emotional counseling. For example, older male victims of sexual
abuse will tend to not disclose sexual abuse out of a sense of
deep embarrassment and shame. Most often, cases will be identified
by "masked" sources such as medical care. Male victims
will most often have been sexually abused by oral-genital (reciprocal
or individually directed), anal penetration (digital, penile or
foreign object) and masturbation (reciprocal or individually directed).
Fabrication of Sexual Abuse
Fabricated reports of sexual abuse do occur and some highly publicized cases that resulted in acquittals have given rise to questioning the credibility of child reporting of sexual abuse. It is estimated that reports that are knowingly false occur in less than 10% of reported cases (Besharov, 1988). In addition, some number of cases appear to involve mistakenly false allegations due to incorrect memories of events and, it seems issues regarding "implanted memories" of abuse. At this time, there are no good estimates regarding this additional proportion of false allegations.
While most children don't fabricate tales of sexual abuse, it
must be noted that some have and will continue to do so. The child
protective service professional should not allow the possibility
of a false allegation or false memory to prevent a thorough investigation
of the report. Each case must be considered on its own merits,
with a fair determination based upon an unbiased evaluation of
the evidence gathered without a predetermined conclusion.
Sexual Abuse -- the Perpetrator
Sexual abuse perpetrators can be classified in three categories:
Intrafamilial Sexual Abuse
Sexual abuse is committed most often by individuals known to the child. In cases involving incest, the abuser is a blood relative who is part of the nuclear family. It may also include a surrogate parent, i.e. live-in boyfriend, step-parent or older sibling. Female perpetrators are known to exist but reporting of such abuse has been rare -- most probably resulting in an underestimation of its frequency.
In cases of intrafamilial abuse, the family is most likely to
be dysfunctional in other areas as well. The mother may play a
very weak role in the family structure, therefore allowing the
abuse to happen through ignorance, apathy or jealousy. The abuser
may feel the mother has failed in her obligations as a wife, sexual
partner and friend. The abuse of the child may be one way to
punish the mother. The family may be plagued by alcohol or other
substance abuse as well.
Acquaintance perpetrators include such persons as family friends, neighbors, teachers, coaches, religious leaders, peers and others. Acquaintance perpetrators normally will win the confidence of the child through his or her affiliation with the family or community. These acquaintances may command positions of respect due to positions in community affairs, i.e., church, civic and business affiliations. Acquaintance perpetrators are more often likely to use threats of intimidation and/or fear against the child once sexual abuse has occurred. Male child victims comprise a high percentage of sexual abuse by acquaintance perpetrators, although it is believed that actual cases are severely underestimated.
Acquaintance perpetrators may use gifts or financial incentives to "win" the child over. They tend to prey on children they know are experiencing home, school or personal problems, or children with low self-esteem or confidence. They also prey on children they know to be unsupervised or neglected.
There is a marked increase in the number of juvenile perpetrators
committing sexual abuse. In recent years, attention has focused
on the identification and treatment of juvenile sex offenders.
According to the National Task Force on Juvenile Sexual Offending,
in 1993 approximately 20-25% of the sexual abuse of girls and
50% of the sexual abuse of boys are perpetrated by adolescents
Stranger Sexual Abuse
Stranger sexual abuse is by far the most publicized form of child sexual abuse, but is also committed less than sexual abuse by family members or acquaintances. Stranger sexual abuse comprises only 10% of all reported cases of sexual abuse. Some perpetrators of stranger abuse are labeled as pedophiles (although pedophiles are found in all three classifications). The term pedophilia is used to describe individuals who have a sexual preference for children. Pedophiles may display obsessive-compulsive behavior patterns, and assume increased risks to sexually assault children (Finkelhor, 1994).
Stranger perpetrators are almost always male and often prey on
male child victims. Most stranger perpetrators deny homosexual
tendencies. There is no evidence that perpetrators choose child
victims based on race, but there is a correlation to increased
victimization of children of lower socio-economic groups. Some
pedophiles specifically marry women with children so that the
risks of sex with children are minimized and protected under the
veil of "normalcy;" therefore, cases of incest may include
factors of pedophilia (Tower, 1992).
Indicators of Sexual Abuse
Physical indicators of sexual abuse may include:
Behavioral indicators may include:
There are a number of reasons that children may not report sexual abuse:
Child Trauma Reactions to Sexual Abuse
Children who are sexually abused experience physiological and emotional reactions. Older children may be overcome with feelings of shame or guilt. The abuser may have, over a period of time, convinced the child that he or she is to blame. The child may not feel that he or she will be believed and, if believed, fear the withdrawal of family affection. Some children may feel that if friends find out about the abuse, they will be held accountable and the friendship will end. The child may experience low or no self esteem in not being able to stop the abuse. The child may also fear that disclosure will cause harm to other family members.
Once disclosure is made, the child may retreat from family members and school friends. He or she may consider suicide because of feelings of no self-worth -- feeling soiled or defiled. On the opposite extreme, the child may experience intense anger and physical and emotional acting out. The child may blame the non-offending parent, in cases of interfamilial abuse, or parents, in cases of non-interfamilial abuse, for failing to protect them. Older children may reenact sexual abuse by engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior, sexually abusing other children, becoming sexual active, and/or using vulgar language.
Younger children may become distrustful and overly fearful of
strangers or family members. They may regress in development,
i.e, quit talking, feeding or dressing themselves. Nightmares,
sleep and appetite disturbances are common. Male victims of sexual
abuse are more likely to aggressively act out. They will have
more concerns about sexual identity and fear of sexual orientation.
Males tend to be more "embarrassed" than girls by the
abuse, thereby causing them to suffer silently (Besharov, 1988;
Missing and Exploited Children
There is a fifth, and much underserved, form of child victimization -- exploitation of missing, run-away, "throw-away" or abducted children. In 1990, the U.S. Department of Justice released the following figures highlighting the seriousness of the problem.
Children, who for whatever reasons live on America's streets, are prime targets for criminal victimization and exploitation. They are often targeted by sex offenders due to their age, lack of maturity and lack of financial security. Boys and girls alike are targeted. Many children become dependent on those who prey on them for survival. They may be indentured to act as prostitutes, participate in child pornography rings, and/or commit crimes such as selling or distributing controlled substances. Some victims fall prey to serial molesters and child killers.
Societal views of runaway youth have not been overly sympathetic. Many persons feel that if a child runs away from home, he or she deserves the victimization. What is not often recognized is that many of these children run to escape physical, sexual, and emotional abuse at home. They are forced out of the home when they refuse to continue to participate in interfamilial sexual abuse. For many children, life can "only be better" on the street. Regardless of the reasons that children find themselves on the street, they are deserving of support and services. In response to this philosophy, the federal government has enacted numerous pieces of legislation to protect our nation's missing and exploited youth.
Parents commit crimes against their children when they kidnap
them from custodial parents. Although some claim they are taking
the child to protect him or her from further abuse, many take
their children out of anger at custodial arrangements (often ordered
by courts). These children are placed at great risk for harm,
both physically and emotionally. A lack of finances to fund abduction
living circumstances and a constant change in living conditions
can and do leave children emotionally scarred. Many children
are further abused emotionally by their parental abductors by
being told that the custodial parent is dead or does not want
Abduction by strangers is somewhat rare; however, when it occurs, the child's chance for survival is significantly lowered. Of these children, many are taken by pedophiles or serial child molesters to satisfy their sexual needs. Once the need is satisfied, the child may be killed to ensure the anonymity of the abductor. Many of these children are often tortured prior to death.
(Portions of the preceding section excerpted from
a National Victim Center grant project, funded by the Office
for Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Programs, 1992-1994.)
Reporting Requirements for Child Abuse and Neglect
Most states and the federal government have enacted laws, and specified professionals who are mandated to report child abuse and neglect. These mandated reporters are individuals who, in their professional relationship with the child and family, may encounter child maltreatment. Some states are more specific in delineating those mandated to report abuse, but most states do include: physicians, other medical professionals, counselors, social workers and school personnel. In addition to delineating who must report, most states provide language that addresses the following:
Not all cases of abuse or neglect are detected by those mandated to report them. In fact, the largest numbers of reporting come from private citizens who witness, hear or suspect abuse or neglect. These interested parties may include other family members, neighbors, parents of childhood friends and other concerned citizens. However, several factors may curtail the reporting of abuse or neglect by private citizens:
Despite the risks of accepting reports of abuse from non-professionals
and anonymous reporters, i.e., false reports, refusal to serve
as recognized witnesses if the case is proven to be criminal in
nature; lack of full disclosure could put the alleged abused child
in greater risk, most agencies take such reports seriously and
do investigate such reports. (Many agencies and most states do
not have specific mandates or policies regarding the investigation
of child abuse/neglect reports through an anonymous tip.) (Tower,
1993, p. 234)
Creating a Multidisciplinary Approach to Child
Abuse and Neglect
Verifying reports and determining appropriate actions and case management plans in cases of suspected physical, neglect, emotional and sexual abuse or neglect will normally involve several community, state or criminal justice agencies. While the ultimate goal of each agency is to protect the child, each agency operates with different policies, procedures and goals.
With so many agencies involved, there is a high probability of duplication or overlapping of protocol, services and procedures. To reduce the possibility of such duplication, many states have incorporated a multi-disciplinary team approach to:
Most multi-disciplinary teams include representatives from social services, law enforcement, victim/witness assistance, child protective services, prosecution, physicians and/or nurses, and mental health services. Some jurisdictions also include guardian ad litems, teachers, community-based service organizations or other advocates appropriate to the individual case.
To determine if allegations or reports of child abuse or neglect are founded, the following formal procedures are normally conducted:
It must be noted that while the information within this chapter
most often deals with child abuse and neglect perpetrated by family
members, other individuals can and do commit these same acts against
children. These individuals may include: teachers, clergy, institutional
or paid caregivers, etc. They, however, are not the focus of
this chapter but are mentioned to alert the reader that cases
such as these exist. Because specific laws have been enacted to
address maltreatment of children by these professionals, these
individuals will often be charged with criminal or civil violations.
The primary investigator will normally be a law enforcement agency
and not child protective services.
Establishing Child Abuse and Neglect Multi-disciplinary
(See generally Tower, 1993, for the above section.)
Methods of Working with Founded Cases of Neglect
Many of the reported cases of child abuse and neglect are determined to be unfounded. The files are normally closed and no other action is taken. Sometimes an investigation will not find concrete findings of abuse, but a suspicion of abuse still lingers. These cases are normally "pended" for additional follow-up and, if no other reports are filed within a specified time period, the case is generally closed.
Founded cases of abuse or neglect can be handled either by child protective service agency intervention or criminal justice intervention. Not all cases of child abuse or neglect are criminal in nature, nor do all founded cases of abuse or neglect require the removal of the child from the home. Financially strapped parents and caretakers are quite capable of loving a child while being unable to properly provide adequate food, shelter or heat for them. The same applies for many parents who are mentally, emotionally or physically unable to meet all of their child's needs. Although these conditions of neglect are more understandable, they are not excuses to allow a child to remain at risk of harm.
Additionally, homemakers often provide transportation to children and/or other family to and from medical or mental health appointments. In cases where there is a finding of willful abuse but the child is not in immediate danger, child protective agencies will work with family members to resolve problems and reduce stress that might have precipitated the abuse or neglect. Most often, these agencies incorporate the use of "contracts" between the agency and the abuser. These contracts specify strict requirements that the parent or caretaker must meet or maintain if he, she or they wish to retain custody of the child. Conditions contained in "contracts" might include:
Parents may also be required to attend parenting classes to learn the proper care and feeding of the child, his or her needs, and to learn of the stressors that may lead to child physical abuse or neglect and techniques to reduce these stressors.
The child protection agency often will conduct follow up home and office visits for a specified length of time to ensure that the conditions of the contract are met. The contract will normally outline specific policies and procedures if "conditions" are not met or if another report of abuse or neglect is filed. These actions may include:
Foster Care Placement
The removal of a child from his or her home may result in a significant emotional toll on the child. It is the accepted philosophy of the court system, child protective service agencies and mental health professionals that a child should remain in the home unless his or her life is threatened, and that services should be geared at reuniting the family. A number of cases of abuse and neglect result in the temporary removal of the child from his or her home, and in some cases permanent removal. Placement can be either in foster care or in some other family member's care.
Most often the parent(s) or the care giver must meet certain conditions, as outlined above, prior to the placement of the child back into the home. To remove a child from the home and place him or her in foster care requires the intervention of the family or juvenile court. Only in cases where emergency removal of the child is warranted can child protective officers act without the direct permission of a judge in removing the child. Even then, the court must be notified and must hold what is referred to as a "shelter care" hearing within 72 hours to determine the child's placement. (Most states recognize a 72-hour deadline but policy can vary from state to state.)
Children who are removed from their home may experience a range of emotions and reactions. They may:
As a result, they may lose their ability to "trust"
the system designed to protect them, leading to the non-reporting
of future abuse. Some children will recant prior statements concerning
the abuse so they can return home. Children placed in foster care
should receive mental health counseling or have access to other
family members to share their emotions and to learn of future
plans for their housing to aid them in accepting their current
(and hopefully) temporary situation.
When the findings of the child abuse or neglect investigation uncovers acts criminal in nature, criminal charges are often filed against the offender. These acts normally include severe or life-threatening cases of child physical abuse and cases of child sexual abuse (Tower, 1993; Besharov, 1988; Finkelhor, 1994).
Factors That May Influence Children To Not Report
Communicating with Child Victims: A Brief Overview
During the investigative phase and in some cases, criminal phase, children will come in contact with a number of adult child protection professionals. The ability to talk with and put children at ease is important because child victims are not small adults. There is a substantial difference between children and adults in the comprehension of concepts, development of verbal skills, reactions to stress and anxiety, and adaptation to new and unfamiliar situations and people. Even among children, there is a vast difference in their ability to process and retrieve information, to become comfortable with new surroundings, and to take concepts and words from literal to general application. All are based upon developmental factors such as age and social maturation.
The types of abuse listed above do not have to occur at home. While it is true that the majority of physical, emotional and sexual abuse and neglect of children occurs in home settings, one or all of the above forms of abuse and/or neglect can occur in institutional, day care, school or other settings that children would attend. Additionally, physical abuse and sexual exploitation can be found in street settings as well.
Prior to working with child victims, it is important to have a general, basic understanding of the emotional and communicative developmental stages of children so that expectations, general communication, questions and desired responses and services are more in line with what the child can realistically supply, and what he or she needs in the way of support and services.
The following communication overview illustrates the communicative abilities of children, as well as developmental information that will provide a brief examination of the emotional and communicative levels of children as they grow. General information on the developmental stages for children from birth to four years is included; however, the child's communicative skills are limited and, as such, professionals will want to consider other communicative techniques as well. These techniques may involve the use of play or art therapy, and/or the use of anatomical dolls. The combination of these two resources should provide the victim service provider with a better understanding of children -- what they say, how they say it and how it can affect the services provided.
Prior to talking with a child, the adult communicator should consider:
According to Susan Samuel of the Kentucky Cabinet for Human Resources, "Attempts to communicate without consideration of the child's developmental level and frame of reference produces responses that appear to be incomplete and inconsistent. Such responses undermine the credibility of the child." To help reduce such risks, she suggest that the adult communicator realize:
Q: Do you know what your birth date is? I bet you do!
Q: When were you 5 years old?
A: I am 5.
Q: You are 5?
Q: When will you be 6?
A: On my birthday.
Q: Okay, silly question. How long ago did you have your birthday?
A: I didn't have my birthday.
Communication Development and Reactions to Trauma
Birth to Two Years
Language capability of the infant and early toddler is pre-verbal.
There is little ability to communicate through spoken word.
The most common form of communicating is through physical activity;
children of this age are dependent on physical human contact for
reassurance. Normal reactions to trauma can be seen by crying,
biting, throwing things, and/or agitated behavior. Memory
of the traumatic event may best be seen in physical reactions,
not in the form of mental memory. For example, a child who has
been repeatedly physically abused may pull or shy away, or begin
crying when in the presence of the abuser.
Two Years to Six Years
At this age, the child is beginning to develop language/verbal
expression skills. He or she will continue to communicate primarily
through play, but play is now interspersed with words. The child
in the mid-age range is beginning to draw and may communicate
through pictures. Additionally, the child is beginning to engage
in pre-conceptual thinking but possesses a minimal concept of
space and time. At this age, the attention span of the child
is extremely limited to concentration of only a few minutes on
any given subject. The child is learning to be more physically
independent through activities such as toilet training, dressing,
feeding and cleaning self. The child's immediate family still
comprises his or her primary relationship. Reaction to trauma
at this age may include: re-enactment of the traumatic event over
and over; parental or caretaker separation anxiety; withdrawal
from normal activities or interaction with family members; depression;
regression in skills already learned such as toilet training,
feeding or washing self, wetting the bed; sleep disturbances with
nightmares common; loss of appetite; physical withdrawal when
in the presence of abuser; and acting out of inappropriate behavior
such as hitting or biting.
Six Years to Ten Years
Language skills at this age are becoming well developed. Play
activities are equally interspersed with verbal communication.
The child learns to tell time, days of the week, months of the
year, etc. The child begins to learn the concept of past and future,
but is more centered in the here and now. He or she may be beginning
to learn problem-solving techniques. The child at this age is
learning to go outside of home or caretaker boundaries. There
is an increase in forming non-familial relationships through peers,
teachers and other adult role models. At this age, reactions to
trauma may include a sense of loss; inability to concentrate;
and increase in imaginative skills that may lead to the embellishment
of traumatic events. The child may suffer physical symptoms of
stress such as headaches, stomach aches, and dizziness; difficulty
in controlling behavior; regression to previously mastered developmental
stages; mood swings; sleep and/or appetite disturbances. Distinct
episodes of depression may become more obvious to the parent/caretaker.
10 Years to 14 Years
Language skills at this age are approaching those of adult ability;
however, knowledge of words does not mean understanding of words
-- language may be more advanced than concepts. The child will
still prefer to communicate verbally over written forms. Children
at this age may communicate through emotional outbursts or temper
tantrums as opposed to employing learned reasoning concepts mode:
"acting out" is common form of expression. Increased
knowledge of the world may make the child more judgmental of life
in general; they begin to apply their own beliefs, values, biases
and prejudices against those learned through family interaction.
A child in this age group is becoming both physically and emotionally
independent from family structure; however, is not uncommon for
the child to move forward and backward in childlike and adult-like
concepts, behaviors and feelings. Puberty and hormonal fluctuations
can cause emotional mood swings and confusion of impending sexuality.
Physiological maturation occurs faster than emotional maturation.
Peer influence and acceptance are becoming a primary focus, although
family acceptance is still important. Reactions to trauma may
include: regression towards child-like behavior; anger; extreme
euphoria or depression; theatrical portrayal of traumatic events;
judgmental about own behavior; emergence of psychosomatic illnesses;
withdrawal from family or school activities; sense of unfairness
over what has happened; and/or minimization of the traumatic
12/14 to 18 Years
At this age, language skills now incorporate an advanced capacity to communicate through written and verbal means. Poetry and story-writing are major avenues of identifying and communicating fears and concerns. The child is now able to fully understand cause and effect and abstract concepts. While the child can consider consequences of action, he or she still is not able to fully rationalize and foresee full future implications of such actions. At this age, the child is most often judgmental about everything, including parental or adult figures. The child is beginning to move away from family structure and support in favor of peer interaction; tends to depend on family members only for guidance when troubled; feels a need for privacy; and may start spending more time in his or her room listening to music and may begin to lock the bedroom door. He or she is becoming more comfortable with body image and may begin to explore more "active" forms of sexual behavior through books, music, film, or actual sexual participation. Reaction to trauma will include many of the same reactions as those experienced in adult post-traumatic stress disorder: anger at the world or parents for failing to protect him or her; shame of behavior or lack of skills to protect oneself; eating and sleep disorders; depression; psychosomatic illnesses; act out inappropriate behavior, especially sexual in nature; judgmental about own behavior and behavior of others; sullen, moody, quiet; ingestion of drugs or alcohol; running away from home; fits of rage; attempt to move into adult world as soon as possible; and/or use of foul language for shock value.
(For the above section, see generally Mapping
strategies for services, National Organization for Victim
Assistance; Focus on the future: A system's approach to prosecution
and victim assistance, National Victim Center, 1990.)
Section II: Child Victims/Witnesses in
the Criminal Justice System
Historically, America's justice system has treated child victims and witnesses shamefully. Following the old adage, "children should be seen and not heard," the American court system for many years effectively excluded the testimony of child victims and/or witnesses. Their age, lack of societal sophistication and inability to follow abstract concepts led our judicial forefathers to believe that children were not competent to come before the court and repeat what they saw or heard or had happen to them. Although crimes were perpetrated against them or they witnessed other crimes being committed, the judicial system did not believe their words were credible.
However, the judicial system has begun to accept that children do not need to be familiar with complex concepts or need to understand legal terminology or procedures -- that they are capable of repeating what they saw or heard about a crime. This wise intervention has not, however, paved the way for children to be seen as children and allowances to be made because they were in fact children. Rather, barriers have been and are still placed in their way.
In the past, most states required children to undergo a competency hearing in court prior to testifying. Most required or still require child victims or witnesses to face the adult offender in court. No programs or services were mandated to reduce the trauma of crime victimization or to alleviate court-related stresses. Quite unfairly, children were placed in the same category as adult witnesses.
In 1982, the President's Task Force on Victims of Crime addressed the need to treat child victims and witnesses differently than their adult counterparts. Simultaneous to the issuance of the President's Task Force's Final Report recommendations, the first comprehensive piece of crime victims' legislation was enacted on the federal level. For the first time, fair treatment standards for victims and witnesses were mandated, including child victims and witnesses, through the passage of The Federal Victim and Witness Protection Act of 1982. Since the enactment of this landmark Act, more than a decade of federal and state legislation has followed. Most notably is the Victims of Child Abuse Act of 1990. With its passage, children in the federal justice process have been afforded rights never granted before. Specific to prosecution, the Act mandates:
Today many states have adopted similar legislation and enacted programs and services to meet the specific needs of child victims/witnesses. Many communities have established very detailed and extensive protocols, policies, procedures and interagency agreements for implementing multi-disciplinary approaches to child victimization. Some courts have lowered their competency requirements and some courts have begun to allow children to testify via two-way cameras, video cameras and other electronic means. Training opportunities now exist nationwide for criminal justice and victim assistance personnel who work with children.
Children who report, witness or suffer crimes not only suffer emotional ramifications of the abuse in and of itself, but are often called upon to participate in an adversarial, formal and adult-oriented system. Without properly trained criminal justice professionals, i.e., law enforcement, victim advocates, prosecutors, probation officers, judges, and parole officials and without specialized programs and services for child victims/witnesses, children participating in the justice process can experience a "second" form of victimization. Services for child victims and witnesses should not be dictated on the strength of a criminal case; rather, the criminal process should be seen as only one element in the handling of child victims and witnesses. There is no doubt that prosecutions are improved with victim/witness support and assistance from criminal justice personnel to child victims/witnesses and their parents/guardians. Child victims/witnesses that possess an understanding of the legal system are:
Children and the Court
Court preparation programs that include non-offending families, guardians, and siblings are important to reduce the child victims'/witnesses' anxiety and their own concerns for the childs' emotional and physical safety. Sometimes, parents/guardians and siblings often feel more anxious than the actual child victim/witness about court participation. It is important to keep their needs in mind as well. If a parent/guardian is supportive of victim services, he or she is more likely to allow the child victim/witness to fully participate in all phases of the justice process.
The testimony of child victims/witnesses plays a substantial role in the successful prosecution of a criminal case. However, the involvement of children in the justice process brings many unique challenges to victim assistance personnel charged with supporting and aiding these children as they travel throughout the process.
It should be noted that children bring with them many preconceived notions about the court process that can induce intense fears and anxiety. Many children have watched television programs in which court trials have been portrayed in less than flattering means. Although criminal justice professionals are aware that these portrayals do not accurately represent real court trials, children are not aware of this. It is important that the child realizes that his or her version of court is not always correct or properly represented on television. This can be done by asking the child what he or she knows about court and if he or she has watched any television shows depicting a trial. If the child answers affirmatively, and the images of the process do not replicate real life, alleviate the child victims'/witnesses' fears
Children who are required to testify against family members face
additional burdens of guilt, shame and confusion. Criminal justice
professionals should make an extra effort to determine if the
child has been subjected to any inter-familial pressure to change
his or her testimony, or subjected to taunts and remarks about
"destroying the family." Additionally, the criminal
justice professional must never make the child feel that
his or her testimony will be the deciding factor in establishing
guilt. Rather, children must be reassured that their testimony
is only a small part of a criminal case (See generally Office
of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1994; Selkin,
Child Victims of Juvenile Offenders: An Underserved
In the growing wake of juvenile crime, the juvenile justice system is seeing an increase in the numbers of child victims and witnesses of these crimes. However, few programs exist that prepare the child victim or witness for participation in juvenile court proceedings.
Historically, these services have been reserved for child victims
of sexual or extreme physical abuse. This is unfortunate because
child victims and witnesses of juvenile offenders most often suffer
the severest forms of intimidation, harassment and reprisal from
juvenile offenders or their representatives. Victim assistance
personnel should provide support and referral services for these
victims and witnesses just as they do for child sexual assault
victims and families, and be aware of the growing number of victims'
rights within the juvenile justice system (see Juvenile Justice
chapter for additional information on these topics).
Children Who Witness the Victimization of Others
Additionally, children are frequently called into adult court to serve as witnesses to crime. Just as many child victims of juvenile offenders receive little or no formalized program assistance, often child witnesses to adult crimes are not provided support and services. Everyday in this country, children witness murder, rape, domestic violence, robberies and assaults. Although they may not personally suffer physical injury, the emotional consequences of witnessing such acts of violence are terrifying.
Child witnesses experience many of the same emotional symptoms
as child victims. They may not be able to sleep or eat; develop
psychosomatic complaints; or experience depression or unexplained
mood swings. They have been injured by the crime and deserve
the criminal justice system's support and services as though they
were the victims. Additionally, child witnesses are just as likely
to be intimidated and fearful of formal court hearings as are
child victims who are required to testify as witnesses. It is
critical that these "secondary" victims be prepared
for court as well.
Recent Federal Initiatives
The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 created several new federal initiatives for crimes dealing with children. These provisions address the following areas:
In addition, federal law now provides for community notification
of the release of predatory sex offenders.
Registration of Sexually Violent Offenders
The Attorney General of the United States is directed under the Act to establish guidelines for state programs that require persons convicted of certain crimes against children -- kidnapping, and sexual misconduct -- to register their addresses with an appropriate state law enforcement agency upon their release from prison.
In cases where the crime committed was "sexually violent," the registration requirement applies to persons committing an offense against an adult or a child.
Recent amendments to the federal sex offender registration statute
provide for the notification of a community regarding the presence
of a registered sex offender. Patterned after New Jersey's "Megan's
Law," this will allow parents to better protect their children
from known sex offenders.
Local, State and Federal Coordination
The Act also requires a sharing of information between local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. For example, the Act requires that state law enforcement agencies must transmit a copy of the conviction data and fingerprints to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Repeat Sexual Offenders
The 1994 Act doubled the maximum prison term applicable to repeat
sexual offenders. Specifically, if an offender commits a sexual
abuse or sexual contact offense under federal law after one or
more prior convictions for a federal or state sexual abuse or
sexual contact offense, the maximum term of imprisonment is doubled.
Child Sex Tourism
A new "child sex tourism" offense was created under
the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act
that makes it illegal for a U.S. citizen or permanent resident
to travel in interstate or foreign commerce with the intent to
engage in sexual acts with a minor that are prohibited under federal
law in the United States. This provision applies regardless if
these acts are legal in the destination country.
Promising Practices For Child Victims and Witnesses
The following practices, effective as a whole or in part, have proven to be highly successful in assisting victimized children and their families:
Additional Promising Practices
Court School for Children
Development of Programs and Curricula
Today, many victim assistance programs across the nation utilize court schools and court orientation sessions to prepare children for their roles in court. Child-friendly activities allow children to learn about court and familiarize themselves with the courtroom and its personnel by using fun and non-threatening activities. In states that still require competency exams for children, the court orientation program can serve as a preliminary measure to the child's ability to adapt and perform new surroundings during a stressful period.
The response of the child victim/witness while performing these activities can also provide criminal justice personnel with a more realistic view of how the child will react to testifying and his or her ability in doing so. If it is noted the child cannot participate even during the play activities without becoming hysterical or totally withdrawing, it might be best to consider other methods for eliciting the child's testimony such as by two-way close-circuit television or other electronic means.
Prior to developing the court school curriculum and activities,
the following issues will need to be decided: (Portions
of this section excerpted from Alexander, 1994.)
Before You Begin
Additional Issues to Consider
With the advent of court orientation programs and court schools,
there is an increase to claims by the defense that children have
been told what to say when they are in court. Often, court school
programs have been called into question when a child testifies.
It is critical that court school and court orientation staff
be prohibited from discussing with the child any factual information
concerning his or her case. Court school should provide only
general information about the criminal justice system, those who
work there and the role of the child in the process. Gifts of
any kind for the successful completion of court school should
be prohibited. A gift of a poster or a teddy bear to hold can
be used against the child by the defense and can garner unfavorable
support for the program with the judiciary. It may be in the
program's best interest to have written policies and procedures,
copies of all resources given to the children and, if possible,
a sample video tape of an actual court school session. Several
jurisdictions have successfully thwarted any defense claims of
coaching or influencing child testimony by having these materials
on hand for examination by the judge or the jury.
Court school activities should be developed that can be used either during court school or taken home to be completed with parents/guardians and/or siblings. A program does not have to have a large budget to develop and reproduce fun and informative activities. If funds are not available to purchase already developed coloring books, board games, etc., consider developing activities that can be photocopied in the office. Advocates may want to visit a local college art department and find a student willing to volunteer his or her time to draw pictures and activities for court school resources. The activities may include:
Each child should be provided with a folder so he or she can take the court school activities home. Consider providing extra copies of the activities for the child victims/witnesses brothers or sisters. When completed together, siblings can better understand what the child victim/witness may be going through. Advocates may also wish to consider developing a small brochure for the parent/guardian that contains information on:
Sample Informal Court Orientation Session
If a jurisdiction does not have the need for a formal court school program, there are several activities that can be provided "individually" to child victims/witness that will help prepare them for court. They may include:
Sample Court School Session (Ages Six and Up)
Preparing children for court can easily be achieved in two "court
school sessions." While the two sessions below offer some
structure, advocates should be prepared to vary from the outline
if children indicate they need additional information or time
to absorb the activities.
Session I (Held in Courtroom or Neutral Setting)
Session II (Held in Courtroom)
Promising Practices for Communicating with
Child Victims and Witnesses
When communicating with child victims, the following should be considered:
Promising Practices to Serve Parents/Guardians
of Child Victims
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