Child abuse law limits cop’s options

WESTFIELD – Municipal police investigating incidents of child abuse are too often handicapped by a proviso of the law which should be changed, Westfield Detective Susan Figy said recently, to allow police to work more effectively and allow greater cooperation with employees of the Department of Children and Families.
The law in question, Chapter 119 of the Massachusetts General Laws, Section 21, specifies in detail who must report possible child abuse and that list includes practically all educators, health care workers and members of the legal system.
Those mandated reporters must report incidents of suspected abuse to DCF but, although they may also report their suspicions to police, they are not required to do so and Figy said that is an opportunity missed when police investigate abuse.
“The law didn’t go far enough” Figy said because the mandated reporters are not required to inform police of possible instances of abuse.
As a result, Figy said, “None of the hospitals call us, they call DCF” and police often do not become aware of cases until time has passed, oftentimes weeks, making investigations less effective.
Because of the delay, she said, “we lose evidence, sometimes we lose witnesses.”
Figy said that the law requires that DCF workers report to police only instances involving death, serious injury or sexual abuse or exploitation and DCF investigators work only on cases in which the suspect is a caretaker for the victim.
“When the law allows us to work together” Figy said, “we work very well together” but said that the law imposes restrictions on sharing information between police and DCF employees.
Police can share information with DCF investigators, she said, but only during the first 15 days of an investigation. After a case has been “screened out” and assigned to a DCF caseworker, Figy said, the law prohibits police from sharing information with the caseworker.
Figy said that she believes that DCF investigators report most cases involving child sexual abuse but other types of abuse may not be reported to police, particularly if no caretaker is believed to be involved.
Often, Figy said, cases are only reported to the district attorney’s office as “discretionary referrals”. Those cases are usually referred to the police by the D.A.’s office but, Figy said, by the time police become involved, time, usually weeks, has passed. Then, she said, investigations are often hamstrung by the delay because, for example, bruises may have faded and the opportunity to photograph them, to preserve the evidence, has slipped away.
And further complicating and delaying the officers’ efforts, the DCF reports go to the district attorney of the county where the victim resides, which is not necessarily where the suspected abuse may have occurred.
Figy said that she has no way of knowing if instances of child abuse which do not involve death or serious injury that have not been reported to police have occurred but said she suspects that she is not advised about all cases.
“What’s falling between the cracks are the smaller cases because we don’t even know they’re in our community” so some cases, which may have been investigated by DCF workers but do not involve substantial bodily injury, do not get investigated by police at all.
And some abuse is not reported to any agency, Figy said,
She said that abusers frequently “pick their victims” and choose to abuse children who have handicaps or other issues which make them unlikely to report abuse or unlikely to be taken seriously if they do report it.
In addition, some parents or mandated reporters may choose to deny abuse is happening or may not know they are required to report it.
“You have a whole bunch of people who don’t report it because, if you don’t report it, it isn’t happening” she said and went on to say that some people don’t know where to report it.
And, she said, members of some cultures represented in the city may not report child abuse to civil agencies because they expect that members of their community, such as the elders of the church, are the appropriate parties to deal with the problem.
But, Figy said, the most important change she would like to see would be a revision of the law to require that local police be informed of every instance of child abuse reported in their jurisdiction.

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To Top