Battered child syndrome is a tragic and disturbing phenomenon. Unfortunately, it is a crime that is often successfully hidden by its perpetrators. Law enforcement has an important role to play in uncovering cases of battered child syndrome and gathering evidence for their successful prosecution. Many jurisdictions are beginning to develop training programs to help police investigate this crime more effectively.
Battered child syndrome is defined as the collection of injuries sustained by a child as a result of repeated mistreatment or beating. If a child's injuries indicate intentional trauma or appear to be more severe than could reasonably be expected to result from an accident, battered child syndrome should be suspected.
In such cases, an investigator must do more than collect information about the currently reported injury. A full investigation requires interviewing possible witnesses about other injuries that the child may have suffered, obtaining the caretakers' explanation for those injuries, and assessing the conclusions of medical personnel who may have seen the victim before.
The issue of whether information on the victim's prior injuries or medical conditions will be admissible at a trial should be left to the prosecutor. However, an investigator's failure to collect such information leaves the prosecutor without one of the most important pieces of corroborative evidence for proving an intentional act of child abuse.
Evidence of past inflicted injuries also may be the only information available to help the prosecutor distinguish between two or more possible perpetrators in the current case, and may help refute claims by the child's parents or caretakers that injuries suggestive of physical abuse were caused by an accident.
Investigators confronted with a case of possible child abuse or child homicide must overcome the unfortunately frequent societal attitude that babies are less important than adult victims of homicide and that natural parents would never intentionally harm their own children.
In a child homicide investigation, an autopsy must be performed. Most States mandate that such autopsies be performed when the death of any child under a certain age is undetermined or suspicious. In States without such a statutory mandate, the medical examiner or local prosecutor often has the authority to order an autopsy. This authority should be used whenever there is an unexplained death of a child.
A major trait of abusive caretakers is either the complete lack of an explanation for critical injuries or explanations that do not account for the severity of injuries. The investigation must not be dictated solely by caretakers' early explanations, because once they learn those do not match the medical evidence, they will come up with new ones.
In child homicide cases, for example, investigators will learn quickly about "killer couches," "killer stairs," and "killer cribs." Abusers frequently use these items in their explanations of a child's death. However, studies show that children do not die in falls from simple household heights; they do not even suffer severe head injuries from such falls.
In nearly every case of actual abuse, the caretakers will not be consistent in their explanations of the injuries over time. Sometimes the changes are apparent from statements abusers have made to others. Additional interviews may be needed to document the changing explanations and to follow up on additional information that the investigation uncovers.
Jim Kouri, CPP is currently fifth vice-president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police. He's former chief at a New York City housing project in Washington Heights nicknamed "Crack City" by reporters covering the drug war in the 1980s. In addition, he served as director of public safety at a New Jersey university and director of security for a number of organizations. He's also served on the National Drug Task Force and trained police and security officers throughout the country. He writes for many police and crime magazines including Chief of Police, Police Times, The Narc Officer, Campus Law Enforcement Journal, and others. He's appeared as on-air commentator for over 100 TV and radio news and talk shows including Oprah, McLaughlin Report, CNN Headline News, MTV, Fox News, etc. His book Assume The Position is available at Amazon.Com, Booksamillion.com, and can be ordered at local bookstores. Kouri holds a bachelor of science in criminal justice and master of arts in public administration and he's a board certified protection professional.