Child Abuse Investigations

Demand for investigating abuse cases, especially child abuse cases, has grown in recent years. Theories abound as to whether abuse has increased or is simply being more widely reported. Victims have historically been ashamed of revealing abuse because they felt they were somehow to blame, but that is changing. Many experts feel that the media has been influential in uncovering the scope of abuse, but critics argue that they have been responsible for creating an unwarranted nationwide fear of abusers, causing the public to see them behind every tree. An uncomfortable truth is that law enforcement personnel who work these cases are astounded at the numbers of abusers encountered in a single operation. They don't feel that the media or anyone else is overstating the danger, and they urge that more media awareness and community education is warranted. Further time and research may reveal the truth of this, but for now, it is incumbent upon everyone to be aware of these abusers and be knowledgeable of the best means for protecting children from them.

Families or their attorneys usually hire PIs to investigate suspected child abuse — and usually do so before any suspicions have been reported to the police. Not only do most people deny it until they no longer can, but they hesitate to report suspicions of abuse without concrete proof. This is where the PI comes in. Surveillance and hidden cameras can obtain that proof. Alternately, the PI is typically called in if or when the police fail to find any proof. Parents or their attorneys will hire the PI for peace of mind, if nothing else.

Types of Child Abuse

The basic types of child abuse are physical, emotional, and sexual. A fourth type, neglect, is not considered abuse by many people. However, most states have some type of law against child neglect. Often, the law is specific and certain tenets must be proven in order to convict, but neglect can be a serious offense.

Whether it's physical, sexual, or emotional, child abuse is ugly. Physical and sexual abuse often go hand in hand and can be accompanied by neglect. When all types are present — and they often are — the result can be catastrophic for the child. Abuse alters children in ways unimaginable to those who have not experienced or witnessed it. While some abused children are fortunate enough to spend time in therapy, more do not. These cases can exact a toll on the investigator who works them.

Sites such as Parent's Guide to New York State Child Abuse and Neglect Laws ( can be found in most states. Research your state's laws in order to be familiar with the state definition of abuse and neglect. The case attorney will appreciate the inclusion of any observed violations in your report.

Recognizing Physical Abuse of Children and Adolescents

There are many signs that a child is being abused or neglected. Indications include the following behaviors by the abuser:

  • Continually blames or criticizes the child — “Can't you do anything right?”

  • Sees child as inferior to his siblings or friends —“Can't you be more like so-and-so?”

  • Sees child as bad, a burden, or even evil —“You're just like your idiot father.”

  • Finds nothing special in child —“I wish you'd find something you're good at doing.” “You're so ordinary you almost disappear in a crowd.”

  • Seems unconcerned when child is hurt —“Is she hurt? She should be more careful.” “She's so clumsy.”

  • Misses appointments to speak with child's teachers, doctors, etc. —“I'm too busy today.” “I'll get his medicine when I can.”

  • Uses drugs or alcohol in child's presence; substance abuse is one of the constants in abuse cases.

  • Accuses the child, to her face and to others, of never telling the truth.

  • Does not want to share the child nor allow her to be with others.

  • The child may also exhibit signs that he is suffering from abuse:

  • Obvious change in personality, temperament, appetite, or school performance.

  • Appears to be overly responsive to the parent's authority, maybe even afraid.

  • Either reports inappropriate physical contact or shows signs that this may have occurred, such as an early, overt interest in sexual contact with others and with himself.

  • Remember that just because one or two of the above warning signals are present one time, it doesn't mean that abuse is occurring or has occurred. The standard is that if one or more of these indications are present on a continuous basis, then you may suspect abuse. You can discover whether these and other abuses are taking place by talking to the child's teachers, doctors, neighbors, and even the child herself. Some investigators find a way to talk to the suspected parent or caregiver, but be very careful not to alert him. Plus, you don't want to insinuate that abuse is occurring when it might not be.

    Recognizing Sexual Abuse in a Child or Adolescent

    Parents may suspect sexual abuse if someone — a friend, neighbor, acquaintance — is more interested in their child than in themselves or other adults. Suspicions can be raised if an adult shows uncharacteristic interest in a child: wanting to spend time with the child; going to movies alone with the child; or watching movies alone with the child in their home. Another signal is if the adult showers the child with gifts. Also, be very sensitive to the child who no longer wants to visit a person whom he's been with in the past. Victims of sexual abuse sometimes begin to do poorly in school and become suddenly secretive and withdrawn. Although not proof of abuse, these things should be a red flag that leads to further investigation.

    It's an unfortunate reality that some children show no concrete signs of sexual abuse. Therefore, it's up to the parent to know her child well enough to pick up on any subtle differences. If the abuser is a family member or someone very close to the child, she may attempt to protect him, and there may be no signs. Therefore, it's important for parents to reassure a child he can talk to them about anything. Parents must cultivate communication and never accuse their child of lying or making something up.

    Hidden Cameras and Child Abuse

    Child abuse is often a hidden crime. Rarely do witnesses present themselves, either because there are no witnesses or because witnesses have issues that keep them from reporting what they see or hear. Sometimes, they don't define the act as abuse, and other times they have suspicions that they can't support. Often, they feel at the mercy of the abuser themselves. Worst of all, sometimes they just don't want to become involved. A hidden camera can provide evidence that proves the crime when there are no witnesses. There are right and wrong ways to use these cameras, however.

    It's not necessary to possess proof of child abuse to report it, but be sure you have reason to believe it's happening — an abuse charge can devastate a family. Placing a hidden camera where abuse is suspected eliminates any doubt. Without proof, it's a difficult decision, but erring on the side of the child is the best policy.

    See Chapter 17 for information on investigative equipment and Chapter 18 for how to conduct surveillance. Chapter 12 provides information about working within the laws of surveillance.

    Child and Adolescent Resources

    The National Center for Victims of Crime,, lists shocking statistics about the crime of child abuse. It also provides resources, training, and help for victims and victim providers. Other sites of interest are:

  • Medline Plus-Child Abuse:

  • Prevent Abuse Now:


  • Bureau of Justice Statistics:

  • Child

  •, Pediatrics:

  • Child Molestation Research & Prevention Institute:


  • is a new organization and will contact members when sexual offenders move into your neighborhood

  • will also contact you for free if an offender moves into your neighborhood

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