Investigation, Prosecution, and Disposition
Few other types of crimes are the focus of as much attention and scrutiny as sex offenses, particularly with respect to the prosecution and ultimate disposition of these cases. Increasingly over the past several years—and largely as a function of heightened media attention—the public, victims and their families, and other key stakeholders are demanding increased accountability measures for sex offenders as a means of promoting public safety. Included among these expectations are longer sentences, harsher punishments, tighter supervision restrictions and, perhaps to a lesser degree, rehabilitative services for the individuals who commit these crimes.
Unfortunately, the handling of adult– and juvenile–perpetrated sex offense cases is not always informed by current research and accurate information, whether about victims, offenders, or effective management strategies. Because misinformation, myths, and biases can impact the ways in which sex offense cases progress through the system, specialized education is critical for all stakeholders involved in offender management efforts to ensure that policies and practices throughout the system are well–informed (English, Pullen, Jones, & Krauth, 1996; Holmgren, 1999). This is particularly salient during the early phases of the criminal justice process, during which practitioners are responsible for addressing multiple objectives, including the following:
- Delivering supportive and other necessary services to victims of sex offenses, beginning at the point of disclosure and continuing through subsequent court proceedings;
- Collecting critical forensic evidence, some of which is unique to crimes of a sexual nature;
- Ensuring due process for defendants;
- Resolving cases swiftly, fairly, and effectively; and
- Making informed disposition decisions that hold adult and juvenile sex offenders accountable, facilitate successful outcomes for victims and offenders, and promote community safety.
Of the multiple facets of a comprehensive and integrated approach to sex offender management, the investigation, prosecution, and disposition components are the most under–represented in the professional literature. As such, practices vary considerably both within and across jurisdictions. This limits the ability of the system to meet the aforementioned objectives and establish a solid framework for initial and ongoing management efforts.
Therefore, as jurisdictions examine the ways in which these types of cases proceed from the point of investigation and through the prosecution and disposition phases, close attention must be paid to the degree to which well–informed and consistent policies and practices are in place. This provides an important opportunity to enhance the quality and integrity of the process overall.
Because they are often the first to have contact with alleged victims and offenders, law enforcement officers and child welfare personnel play a key role in ensuring that quality investigations are conducted. Investigations are most effective when professionals are guided by specialized knowledge, sensitive to the needs and interests of victims, and committed to multidisciplinary collaboration.
Without question, investigating sex crimes poses unique challenges for law enforcement and child welfare agencies (see, e.g., APRI, 2003; English et al., 1996; Hazelwood & Burgess, 2001; Myers, et al., 2002; Turvey & Savino, 2004; Vieth, Bottoms, & Perona, 2006). Included among these challenges are the dynamics of sexual victimization and the impact that it has on victims’ disclosures and willingness to participate fully in the investigative process. In addition, the physical evidence distinct to sex crimes and, in many instances, the lack of corroborating evidence, create unique barriers to these investigations. And when children are the alleged victims, developmental issues (e.g., age, verbal abilities, memory, suggestibility) further complicate the investigative process.
Professional biases and stereotypes about victims and offenders can also influence the ways in which these cases are investigated. For example, research indicates that there is a significant association between a variety of victim–related factors and decisionmaking by law enforcement agencies (see, e.g., APRI, 2003; Myers et al., 2002; Simon, 2003). Specifically, familiar victim–offender relationships in rape cases and delays in reporting by victims of rape and other types of sexual abuse can lead to increased skepticism on the part of investigators. When investigators question the credibility of a victim’s report, the likelihood of a rigorous investigation is markedly reduced. Consequently, charges may not be filed and cases may not be prosecuted fully, even when the allegations are founded.
When juveniles are the focus of investigations, myths and misperceptions can impact the ways in which law enforcement, child welfare, and juvenile court personnel respond to allegations of sexual victimization. Indeed, for many years, juvenile–perpetrated sex crimes were largely overlooked, minimized, or dismissed because of widespread and uninformed sociocultural and professional attitudes, including a “boys will be boys” mentality and the belief that sexually problematic behaviors were simply a normal phase out of which adolescents would grow (Bala & Schwartz, 1993; Heinz & Ryan, 1997; NAPN, 1993). Law enforcement and child welfare officials have since begun to take allegations involving youthful offenders much more seriously. But unfortunately, in some instances, non–sexually abusive youth are now being referred for investigation and ultimately mislabeled as “dangerous sex offenders.” This is, in part, a reflection of a limited understanding on the part of stakeholders from law enforcement and child welfare officials about sexual behaviors among adolescents, the difficulties these professionals experience in differentiating nominative inappropriate sexual conduct among youth, and a lack of knowledge about the differences between adults and juveniles who engage in sexually abusive behavior (see, e.g., Becker & Hicks, 2003; Chaffin, Letourneau, & Silovsky, 2002; Letourneau & Miner, 2005; Zimring, 2004). In the absence of accurate, research–based information about these youth, investigative personnel may be ill–equipped during the investigation process and may either fail to file, or inappropriately file, delinquency petitions in these cases.
Taken together, these and other challenges highlight the importance of specialized information and training (see, e.g., English et al., 1996; NAPN, 1993). Included among the targets for initial training and education for law enforcement and child welfare investigators are the following:
- Victimization trends, including the dynamics that impact the disclosure process for victims;
- Victims’ rights and the needs of victims and their families;
- The heterogeneity of individuals who commit sex offenses, including the key differences between sexually abusive adults and juveniles;
- Differential and developmentally–appropriate forensic interviewing strategies for victims;
- Child development, particularly as it relates to verbal abilities, memory, and suggestibility;
- Interviewing techniques and strategies for alleged perpetrators and non–offending family members;
- Trends pertaining to Internet–related sex crimes, and the use of computer forensics for investigative purposes;
- Potential relationships between sexual victimization and other maltreatment within the home (e.g., child abuse, domestic violence);
- Sexual assault forensic examinations conducted by medical professionals; and
- Effective multidisciplinary collaboration and critical information–sharing.
In addition, particularly for law enforcement agents, specialized training about the proper procedures for collecting and preserving evidence is vital. Among the key sources of evidence that are often specific to sex crimes cases are DNA, clothing items, bedding, furniture (for trace evidence), and computer files. In the absence of specialized training in this area, investigators may overlook or mishandle evidence, which can ultimately compromise successful prosecution efforts.
Investigators should also become familiar with the various sex offense–related statutes within the jurisdiction (English et al., 1996). This awareness, or lack thereof, can impact the extent to which law enforcement officials and other investigators pursue evidence collection and inquiries during interviews with alleged victims and perpetrators. It can also provide a lens through which evidence, statements, and other details of the alleged offense are viewed and ultimately interpreted. Along a similar vein, if investigators understand the statutory provisions that define sex offenses and sexually–motivated crimes, possess specialized knowledge about the dynamics of some sex crimes, and use effective investigation techniques, they may be better able to recognize crimes that initially appear non–sexual in nature but that may have an underlying sexually–motivated component.
A key element of investigating cases involving sexual victimization is the ongoing assurance of victim–centeredness throughout the process. At the point of disclosure or identification, a full range of resources must be readily available in order to offer crisis intervention, support, education, referrals, and advocacy to victims. Advocacy and support—without compromising the truth–seeking process—is critical at this juncture, as victims and their families may experience a variety of concerns and fears that may impact their willingness or desire to participate in the investigative and subsequent court process. Indeed, practitioners who play a role in these investigations must understand and appreciate the potential influences that may be operating, including the following (see, e.g., CSOM, 2006; OVC, 2000):
- Feelings of shame, guilt, and self–blame;
- Fears that they will not be believed, or may even be blamed by others;
- Lack of support by family members;
- The desire to keep the matter private;
- Insensitivity by law enforcement, child welfare, or medical professionals;
- Threats or harm by the abuser, or fears of retaliation;
- Attachment to the abuser;
- Fears about economic and other family hardships, particularly in intrafamilial cases; and
- Concerns about the system’s ability to protect them.
When the alleged perpetrator is a juvenile and the case involves a sibling or other family member, investigators must also be sensitive to the potential reactions of parents and other members of the family. Families can become divided, either because some may believe the allegations while others do not, or because they feel compelled to “take a side.” Child welfare investigators must also be sensitive to the responses and feelings of family members—and even victims—when the removal of the alleged perpetrator from the home is deemed necessary. These can include anger, confusion, and despair, including feeling torn because of perceived expectations that they must “choose” one child over another. Extreme guilt may even lead victims to recant the allegations, or they may be pressured by others to do so.
In those cases where investigators and the courts determine that separation of the alleged victim and offender is required, removal of the offender should almost always be the first course of action. Understandably, removing the victim can cause further trauma, and the victim may perceive that they are responsible for the abuse or that they have engaged in wrongful behavior. Only in rare circumstances, when it has been determined to be in the best interest of the victim, should they be removed. Primary examples are when the investigation reveals that the non–offending parent refuses to acknowledge that abuse could have occurred, blames or harbors considerable resentment toward the child, is unable or unwilling to ensure the alleged abuser’s departure or continued absence, or has demonstrated a continued pattern of failing to protect the child or other children from abuse.
Victim sensitivity is also critical during the forensic examination process in order to prevent system–induced trauma. Indeed, researchers have revealed that when victims present themselves to hospital emergency departments, multiple factors can contribute to or exacerbate the trauma they have already experienced (Ahrens, et al., 2000; Campbell, 1998; Campbell, et al., 1999). These factors include, but are not limited, to the following:
- Excessive delays for intervention or treatment;
- A chaotic and impersonal environment that is not conducive to support, comfort, and privacy;
- Invasive forensic examination procedures performed mechanically and without explanation about what the procedure will involve and why it is necessary; and
- Unanticipated costs associated with the forensic examination and other medical procedures.
In response to the need for more victim–sensitive procedures, Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) and Forensic Nurse Examiner (FNE) programs have been established throughout the country (Ahrens et al., 2000; Campbell, 1998; Campbell et al., 1999; Ledray, 1999, 2004). These programs, which are generally available at no cost to victims, assure that services are provided in a safe and supportive environment by professionals who are specially trained to understand victims’ needs, conduct forensic examinations, and provide court testimony relative to the investigative process (Ahrens et al., 2000; Ledray, 1999, 2004). Another key feature of these types of programs is a single interview protocol—collaboratively designed by medical, law enforcement, and legal personnel—thus eliminating the need for victims to repeatedly describe their experience to multiple parties. Similarly, child advocacy centers offer discreet, child–friendly environments in which the forensic examinations and single interview protocols are available, thus minimizing the potential to further traumatize the child (see, e.g., Finkel & Giardino, 2001; Myers et al., 2002). Furthermore, many child advocacy centers are equipped to provide victims and their families with immediate supportive and counseling services, education about the court process, and community referrals for additional services.
The investment of time and resources in victim–sensitive investigative processes yields significant dividends in both the short and long term, including the following (Ahrens et al., 2000; APRI, 2003; Ledray, 2004; Myers et al., 2002; Turvey & Savino, 2002):
- Standardized and consistent protocols to guide and enhance the overall investigation process;
- Reliable forensic evidence collection;
- Minimized duplication of efforts;
- Efficient processing of cases;
- Reduced waiting times for victims and families;
- Increased linkages to victim advocacy and other community resources;
- Decreased system–induced trauma to victims and families; and
- Greater likelihood of effective prosecution.
Multiple agencies are involved with sex crimes investigations, often with unique roles and responsibilities. However, they often share a common goal—to ensure reliable and valid findings that will lead to successful resolution of these cases. This is best accomplished through establishing multidisciplinary collaborative teams, commonly known as sexual assault response teams. These teams typically operate within the parameters of a formal protocol that guides the multiple facets of the investigation process and promotes information–sharing among law enforcement agents, child welfare personnel, victim advocates, medical professionals, and court officials.
Another key mechanism for information–sharing, and one that is distinct to sex crimes investigations, involves the coordination of local, statewide, and national sex offender registries. As part of the registration process, law enforcement and other officials collect identifying information (e.g., fingerprints, DNA samples) from convicted or adjudicated offenders; this information is subsequently entered into databases that can be accessed by law enforcement agents within and across jurisdictions. When accurate, up–to–date, and readily accessible, the information in these registries can be useful for linking known sex offenders to crimes that are currently under investigation or are otherwise unsolved. (For additional information about sex offender registries, see the Registration and Notification section of this protocol.) Along similar lines, states have been encouraged to participate in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), a technology system that can assist federal, state, and local crime laboratories in solving crimes by comparing DNA found at crime scenes with DNA from convicted offenders.
Most agencies involved in the criminal/juvenile justice and social services fields collect a wide range of statistical information that has salience to their respective agencies (e.g., number of clients served per year, number of arrests by offense type, number of releases, average length of stay). When collected and reviewed across disciplines, and particularly when combined with information from system–wide assessments, these types of data can be instructive on multiple levels (e.g., better understanding what sex offenders within a given jurisdiction “look like,” conducting process and outcome evaluations, implementing quality assurance measures) (see, e.g., CSOM, 2007).
With respect to the investigative component of a comprehensive approach to sex offender management, law enforcement, child welfare, and other systems will ideally have access to multiple data sources that can inform current practices, including the following:
- Number of sexual assault crisis intervention responses;
- Investigations conducted by child welfare agencies (e.g., number and nature of referrals, number of completed investigations);
- Investigations conducted by law enforcement agencies (e.g., number and nature of referrals, number of completed investigations);
- Demographic information about alleged victims and offenders (e.g., age, gender, race);
- Relationship between alleged victim and offender (e.g., family member, acquaintance, stranger);
- Case–specific information, such as the location of the alleged incident (e.g., home, outdoor/public location, school, childcare center) and use of force or a weapon;
- Number of forensic medical examinations conducted (including age and gender of victim);
- Number of child advocacy center encounters; and
- Outcomes of investigations (e.g., number of cases cleared through arrest, substantiated sexual abuse referrals, number of cases referred for prosecution, number of unsolved cases).
Taken together, these and other data provide key stakeholders throughout the jurisdiction with a common, data–driven understanding of the nature and scope of reported sexual victimization within their jurisdiction and the ways in which the system responds during this initial phase of the process. These data can also be useful for understanding cross–agency workloads, examining resource utilization, identifying potential staffing and other resource needs, and establishing funding priorities. Ultimately, this can inform the development of strategies that can increase the jurisdiction’s overall ability to respond effectively to these cases.
In summary, the strength of investigative teams is dependent upon the individual and collective expertise of the team members and their willingness to work collaboratively to gather and analyze critical information. Through specialized training, well–informed protocols, and collaborative partnerships, the quality and quantity of information about each case can be increased significantly, thus ensuring more comprehensive and reliable investigations. In turn, these well–executed investigations lay the groundwork for appropriate charging decisions, lead to more effective prosecutions, and ultimately promote victim and community safety.
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