Criminal Justice Section  

    Criminal Justice Magazine

Criminal Justice Magazine
Summer 2000
Vol. 15, Issue 2

Drop in Crime Rate Bypasses Child Victims

By Jane Brady

Law enforcement is bragging and political leaders are beaming. In recent years, in study after study, the violent crime rate has been on the decline. Yet, these seemingly encouraging reports contain both a secret shame and a ticking time bomb. Despite the overall positive trend, the number of child victims hasn't fallen, and studies show that significant violence falls on those who should be among the most protected. Indeed, a special report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, found that persons aged 12 to 24 comprised 22 percent of the population, 35 percent of murder victims, and 49 percent of serious violent crime victims.

There are more juvenile offenders, and many of them are likely to have been victims of other crimes before they became offenders. In fact, one study showed that more than 30 percent of child victims were arrested as juveniles, as opposed to less than 20 percent of a control group. (C.S. Widom, Childhood Victimization: Early Adversity, Later Psychopathology, ADVERSITY, STRESS AND PSYCHOPATHOLOGY, 81-95, B.P. Dohrenhend, ed., Oxford Press (1998); D.O. Lewis, D.O., et al., Violent Juvenile Delinquents: Psychiatric, Neurological, Psychological and Abuse Factors, J. AM. ACAD. CHILD PSYCHIATRY 10 (1979); see also C.S. Widom, The Cycle of Violence, SCIENCE 244 (1989); Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse-Later Criminal Consequences, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF JUSTICE, RESEARCH IN BRIEF (March 1995).)

It has become clear, in studies and in my own experience, that when a crime is committed against a child, the impact is significant. They may need to learn again to trust others or themselves, to cope with emotional, mental, and sometimes physical challenges exceeding those of normal childhood, and to regain their self-confidence. Regrettably, some fail to do so effectively. In addition to the greater likelihood of becoming delinquent or criminal, many suffer other effects. The likelihood of a suicide attempt is more than double for all victims, and nearly three times as likely for female victims. (C.S. Widom, Childhood Victimization: Early Adversity, Later Psychopathology, supra.) All of us in law enforcement have seen, in the lives of many of the offenders we arrest or prosecute, the pattern of low self-esteem, poor performance in school, poor attendance at school, substance abuse, and criminal behavior. What we are learning is that the first component of that pattern, low self-esteem, is often preceded by victimization.

Obviously, the most effective strategy for reducing child victimization is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. But when that fails, we must complement the host of prevention services available to nurture young children with effective intervention strategies for those children who become the victims of abuse, neglect, or other criminal acts.

Victims become victimizers

Delaware, like many other states, has recently revised the laws relating to juvenile offenders and has lowered the age at which serious and repetitive juvenile offenders can be tried as adults-transferring those cases out of the juvenile court system. (10 DEL. CODE ANN. § 1010(a), (c)(3), (e).) Indeed, I led the effort and my office drafted the bills that became law. I believed, and still believe, that there are some juvenile offenders for whom the remedies available in a juvenile court system are inadequate to protect the public, and for whom the repeated efforts at rehabilitation, the stated perspective of the juvenile system, have failed. But I could not ignore the stories from the detention and prison staff, much of which could be substantiated, of the lives of abuse and victimization that many of these youthful offenders had suffered-lives you or I could not have endured and been where we are today. And yet, when I reviewed our files, I learned that these youth often never showed up in my office as victims.

I met with the child protection director in my state to review what resources were available to these children and where system changes could be made to ensure an appropriate response when they were victimized. I learned that the agency those of us in criminal prosecution believe is out there to help our child victims is only involved, due to their jurisdictional purposes, in about 40 percent of the cases involving juvenile victims. I feel certain that Delaware's experience is not unique, and that other states around the country face similar circumstances. I would like to share what we did in Delaware to address the issues.

Intervention is crime prevention

I believe that coordinated intervention on behalf of child victims is not only responsible public policy, it is also a promising crime prevention strategy. To attempt to achieve those results, and to improve the lives of the children affected, I formed the Attorney General's Task Force on Child Victims in October 1996, and gave to it the mandate to determine how we can better identify children who are victims of crime, assess their needs, and provide more timely intervention treatment services to help restore the damage that victimization has done to their young lives. Twenty-three leaders from the criminal justice system, social service agencies, public health and education communities, and clergy and community members sat at the same table over the next 18 months or so, in order to better understand the issue and to develop effective policies and communication and intervention strategies.

The process was challenging. The task force understood it had to get a clear understanding of the nature and extent of the problem of child victimization in Delaware. The panel examined the training and cooperation of those involved with child victims in the criminal justice system and social service agencies. Finally, the task force looked at treatment resources available in Delaware. We held two series of public hearings-one for professionals and one for the public. The comprehensive task force report, entitled "Safe Harbors for Our Children: Reducing Child Victimization in Delaware" was issued in April 1998, and delineated a substantive list of recommendations to better respond to and reduce child victimization. Generally, the recommendations fell into the following categories: determining the extent of child victimization in Delaware, expanding training for professionals, improving the availability of services to child victims, improving the efficiency of delivering those services to child victims, increasing the penalties for crimes against children, and educating the public about the problem of child victimization.

Compiling data

One of our biggest hurdles in addressing the problem was the lack of comprehensive data. The state did not collect or retain, in a form that could be easily accessed or disseminated, adequate data on child victims. We sought the assistance of the State of Delaware Statistical Analysis Center, which compiled an award-winning, comprehensive statistical report titled "Juvenile Victims and Their Perpetrators" (1997). These data provided some clarity as to the nature and extent of the problem of child victimization, including the fact that the younger the child victims, the more likely they were to be victimized by an adult. Closer review indicated those adults often held a position of trust or responsibility to the child. Consistent with previous reviews of sex offenses, the review determined that most victims of forcible rapes in Delaware are children. In fact, the rate of forcible rapes in Delaware is one of the highest in the country. This is attributed to improved and aggressive criminal justice procedures that result in better reporting and prosecution of such incidents. (Id., p. iii.)

Bringing agencies together

Progress occurred even as the task force worked. It was discovered that the child mental health system and the victim advocacy community rarely interacted, and were unaware of what resources were available to victims and how the two perspectives could work together. The cooperation of these two interested communities has made a real difference, especially for those children in whose cases the child protection services referrals to resources were not available. It was determined that the good work done to develop a memorandum of understanding between the education community and the child protection services was undermined by lack of training within both entities. As a result of the task force's efforts, training today is mandated for all educators. A training video has been developed by the child protection office, and the memorandum of understanding has both a higher profile and greater value.

Communication between agencies in the civil and criminal justice systems was inconsistent and irregular. Decisions to return children to the homes in which they were victimized were often made without the prosecutors being advised, and without the social worker being aware of the prosecution decisions made in the case. Grant monies were secured, however, and information systems are being developed to allow access to information in each respective system, and to create automated notification when significant decisions are made in the case by either function. (Currently, the system is testing immediate, automated notification of the prosecutor and child protection offices when any police intervention involving a domestic violence incident in which a child was present occurs.) The linking of these systems will mean more timely response and better decisions by both groups on behalf of the victims.

Another concern that the task force felt should be addressed was the delay from arrest to disposition in cases in which children were victims. The demands on these children to remember the facts and the emotional drain that continues during the long wait for these cases to get to trial can be overwhelming for the victims and detrimental to the pursuit of justice. Policies were developed in the attorney general's office that every priority would be given to preparing and presenting those cases as promptly as possible. The courts' cooperation was sought, and there have been improvements, although we continue to address this issue.

Children can't ask for help

In its report, the task force observed that children "have no voice of their own." Children are unable to report crimes committed against them, seek medical help, or call upon social service agencies for help. The sad truth is that children are often less likely than adults to get the help they need. Several strategies were developed to provide more timely and effective intervention. The task force recommended there be greater representation of children's interests in the court proceedings relevant to their victimization, and recommended the expansion of resources to the Court Appointed Special Advocate program. In addition, an independent group, the Child Protection Accountability Commission, established subsequent to the task force, was instrumental in securing legislation that created the Office of Child Advocate, which is also expected to assist in this regard. The Violent Crime Compensation Fund laws were changed to provide expedited financial resources for psychological assessments and out-patient counseling services, so that children who are victims do not need to wait the months that sometimes transpire between application and receipt of compensation. (11 DEL. CODE ANN. §§ 9005(8), 9020.) In addition, a task force subcommittee developed a directory of more than 400 public and private agencies that serve children who are victims of crime that was placed on the home page of the Office of the Attorney General. Parents and professionals can use this detailed Child Victim Resource Directory to match their child or the victim they are serving to the agency that best meets his or her needs.

The task force found there were several other areas that needed to be addressed-public awareness and education, and training of all members of the component response agencies. Under Delaware law, every person has a legal obligation to report suspected child abuse, and informing the public about the law and demonstrating how to recognize the warning signs was thought to be a priority. We are seeking to establish a speakers bureau and we are in the process of developing the training for the members of that bureau. Individuals throughout the state, from law enforcement, child protection, prosecution, judicial, and education agencies, are working together to pool training funds and have planned future cross-training to improve collaboration and communication and to reduce duplication.

"Safe Harbors" report

Last, but most certainly not least, the task force determined that existing Delaware laws should be changed to better respond to child victims and to ensure that persons committing crimes against children were subject to sufficiently severe sanctions. The "Safe Harbors" report listed several possible legislative remedies, some of which have since been enacted. The results of these proposals include the creation a specific aggravating factor for sentencing purposes for any offense against a child under age 16 (accomplished by amending the sentencing guidelines established by the Delaware Sentencing Accountability Commission), enactment of a tolling statute for child physical abuse (similar to an existing law that allows past unreported child sexual abuse to be prosecuted even beyond the statute of limitations), and an expansion of the Endangering the Welfare of a Child Statute to specifically include cases in which a child witnesses domestic violence against a relative or is transported in a motor vehicle by an intoxicated driver or has access to illegal drugs in the household. (11 DEL. CODE ANN. §§ 1103(a)(4), (5), (6).)

It is noteworthy that when the task force began its work in late 1996, some questioned whether such a review was even necessary. The critics were silenced months later, however, during a child death investigation. It was revealed that earlier reports of abuse of a four-year-old child abuse homicide victim had not been timely or appropriately acted upon. The prosecution of the offender in this case was the first under another legislative initiative entitled "Murder by Abuse and Neglect." (11 DEL. CODE ANN. §§ 633, 634.) (That legislation allowed the prosecution to seek far more appropriate penalties for child abuse homicides than the difficult application of the facts of many child abuse homicides to the general proof requirements of homicide offenses in Delaware previously allowed. A subsequent effort added the crime of Assault by Abuse or Neglect, 11 DEL. CODE ANN. § 615, for those equally tragic cases in which the child victim is seriously injured, as in one case, in which the very young victim will never be able to speak, see, or walk).)

Sadly, the death of the four-year-old boy was not an isolated incident. During the time that the task force met monthly, several similar child death cases occurred and the clamor for reform grew. Since then, the concerted efforts of law enforcement, prosecutors, social services, and legislators have had a positive impact. The task force now meets quarterly to review progress on its action plan and evaluate unforeseen issues as they arise. I believe that as long as an aggressive dialogue continues, there is great hope that the promising new initiatives will successfully achieve a more effective response on behalf of all child victims and create the opportunity for a more positive future for these youngest of victims.

The complete report by the Attorney General's Task Force on Child Victims and the Child Victim Resource Directory is available online at the Delaware Department of Justice website, located at n

Jane Brady is the attorney general for the State of Delaware and has been an advocate of victims' rights for more than 20 years.