Child sex abuse investigations: Why doctors on your team is a must

Take the time to develop a relationship with the doctors at the hospitals in your jurisdiction — it will pay off when you close more cases successfully

By Kirk Pero
Police1 Contributor 

I am always thrilled when I learn that one of the doctors from our multi-disciplinary team has been involved in a child abuse case I worked. These professionals can offer insights that are paramount to corroborating evidence and eliciting confessions from suspects. Doctors — especially child abuse specialists — have been able to make or break countless cases in jurisdictions all over the world.

Many patrol officers — and even street level investigators — limit their contact with doctors to the Emergency Room physician that makes a pronouncement or treats a victim. This contact is often as quick as getting the spelling right on the doctor’s name for a report.

This is a mistake, especially in investigations of physical or sexual abuse of children. Here are some reasons to consider working to establish good relationships with doctors who may be in contact with an abuse victim.

Doctors Possess Great Expertise
The suspect in a child abuse case is more often than not a trusted family member, caregiver, or friend. The investigation will likely require that all people that have had contact with the child be interviewed. Doctors can establish time frames for injuries, death, and even possibly sexual activity.

When a suspect gives a cause for an injury, the doctor can use their training and experience to determine if this mechanism is realistic. Using information from the doctor can help you determine the validity of a suspect’s statements. There are many times when a suspect is confronted by medical evidence and relents from lying to confession.

Doctors are often concerned with violations of HIPAA laws, so be sure you know what is considered confidential in your jurisdiction. Once this hurdle is overcome, there are a wealth of medical specialists that can assist you if a child abuse doctor is not available. Most orthopedic doctors can determine the type or level of force necessary to cause certain broken bones or bruising. They can compare the results of x-rays and MRIs to determine specifically if what the suspect says is possible or not.

Burns are another area where doctors that specialize in the field can be of great assistance. Burn injuries are not that common and it is likely that as an investigator you will not have a great deal of experience assessing these injuries. The doctor can determine the level of severity and explain the duration and level of treatment required. This can assist investigators with determining appropriate charges as well as in interviews with potential witnesses and suspects.

A Tool for Corroboration
In cases of sexual abuse, the medical evidence can be a huge tool for corroboration. Injuries suffered during the event are captured by medical photography as soon as possible. The doctors and nurses are also skilled at collecting samples to be later compared to DNA profiles in criminal databases. In these cases, doctors can also testify to de-bunk some common myths.

An example of one of these myths is that a medical professional can say for certain whether or not a female is still a virgin. Often the most powerful testimony from a doctor is explaining to a jury what is not possible in medical exams. Some states also require a patient’s name to be placed on a registry if they test positive for an STD. This may require a warrant or subpoena, but it can be powerful information if a child victim has an unexplained disease.

One other thing to keep in mind is that a doctor in an ER is trying to save a patient’s life. Being aggressive and asking for information while active life-saving measures are taking place does not endear you to the medical staff. Be patient and the doctors can give you accurate information that is not rushed and likely more helpful to the case.

These examples are all ways I have worked an abuse case in conjunction with the talented child abuse specialist doctors in my city. They can help you as well. Take the time to develop a relationship with the doctors at the hospitals in your jurisdiction — it will pay off when you close more cases successfully.

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