IV. Child Victims
The victimization rate for
children 12 through 19 is higher than that for any other age group. (Note:
Criminal victimization data are not collected for children under 12 years
of age.) In addition, according to the American Medical Association, approximately
1,100 children die each year from abuse and neglect while 140,000 are
injured. Uniform Crime Report data indicate that almost 2,000 children
under the age of 18 were murdered in 1996. Finally, murder and nonnegligent
manslaughter are the causes of death for approximately 17 percent of children
under the age of 19.
When children are victimized,
their normal physiological and psychological adjustment to life is disrupted.
Furthermore, they must cope with the trauma of their victimization again
and again in each succeeding developmental stage of life after the crime.
Child victims suffer not
only physical and emotional traumas from their victimization. When their
victimization is reported, children are forced to enter the stressful
adult world of the criminal justice system. Adultsperhaps
the same adults who were unable to provide protection in the first placeare
responsible for restoring the children's sense that there are safe places
where they can go and safe people who they can turn to. As a law enforcement
officer, you can play a key role in this process and lessen the likelihood
of long-term trauma for child victims.
Tips for Responding to Child Victims
Choose a secure, comfortable setting for interviewing
child victims, such as a child advocacy center. If such an interview
setting is not available, choose a location that is as comfortable
as possible. Take the time to establish trust and rapport.
Preschool children (ages 2 through 6) are most
comfortable at homeassuming no child abuse took place thereor
in a very familiar environment. A parent or some other adult the
child trusts should be nearby.
For elementary school-age children (ages 6 through
10), the presence of a parent is not usually recommended since
children at this age are sometimes reluctant to reveal information
if they believe they or their parents could get into trouble.
However, a parent or some other adult the child trusts should
be close by, such as in the next room.
Preadolescents (ages 10 through 12 for girls and
12 through 14 for boys) are peer-oriented and often avoid parental
scrutiny. For this reason, they may be more comfortable if a friend
or perhaps the friend's parent(s) is nearby.
Since adolescents (generally, ages 13 through
17) may be fearful of betraying their peers, it may be necessary
to interview them in a secure setting with no peers nearby.
Realize that children tend to regress emotionally
during times of stress, acting younger than their age. For example,
8-year-olds may suck their thumb.
Use language appropriate to the victim's age. Remember
your own childhood and try to think like the victim. Avoid baby
Since young children often feel they may be blamed
for problems, assure preschool and elementary school-age children
that they have not done anything wrong and they are not in trouble.
Be consistent with the terms you use and repeat important
Ask open-ended questions to make sure victims understand
Use care in discussing sexual matters with preadolescent
and adolescent children, as their embarrassment and limited vocabulary
can make conversation difficult for them. At the same time, do not
assume that victims, including elementary school-age children, are
as knowledgeable about sexual matters as their language or apparent
sophistication might indicate.
Maintain a nonjudgmental attitude and empathize with
victims. Because elementary school-age children are especially affected
by praise, compliment them frequently on their behavior and thank
them for their help.
Remember the limited attention span of children. Be
alert to signs that victims are feeling tired, restless, or cranky.
When interviewing preschool children, consider conducting a series
of short interviews rather than a single, lengthy one. Also, consider
postponing the interview until the victim has had a night's sleep.
However, in this case, be sure not to wait too long before interviewing
preschool children because victims at this age may have difficulty
separating the events of the victimization from later experiences.
Encourage preschool children to play, as it is a common
mode of communication for them. You may find that as children play,
they become more relaxed and thus more talkative.
Limit the number of times victims must be interviewed.
Bring together for interviews as many persons from appropriate public
agencies as possible, including representatives from the prosecutor's
office, child protective services, and the medical/health care community.
Include victims, whenever possible, in decisionmaking
and problem-solving discussions. Identify and patiently answer all
of their questions. You can reduce victims' insecurity and anxiety
by explaining the purpose of your interview and by preparing them,
especially elementary school-age children, for what will happen next.
Show compassion to victims. Children's natural abilities
to cope are aided immensely by caring adults.
Although the immediate victim is the child, do not
forget to comfort the nonoffending parents. Referrals regarding how
they can cope, what they can expect, as well as how to talk to and
with their child should be provided.