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. Adults—perhaps
the same adults who were unable to provide protection in the first place—are
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
home—assuming no child abuse took place there—or 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
- 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
- Use language appropriate to the victim's age. Remember your own
childhood and try to think like the victim. Avoid “baby talk.”
- 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 information
- Ask open-ended questions to make sure victims understand you.
- 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
- 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
- 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 decision-making 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
non-offending 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.