New White Paper on Prosecution of Child Sexual Abuse: Challenges in Achieving Justice

Prosecution of child sexual abuse (CSA) serves an important purpose beyond providing a penalty to a guilty party: It can offer an avenue to justice for survivors of abuse and their families, protect potential future victims, and send a message to the community that sexual abuse of children is taken seriously and that justice for child victims is a priority. But only a small number of reports of CSA actually lead to the prosecution of perpetrators and achieving justice for victims and communities.

Linda M. Williams, Ph.D., director of the Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative at the Wellesley Centers for Women, and Stephanie D. Block, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, recently published a white paper, Prosecution of Child Sexual Abuse: Challenges in Achieving Justice, based on their study funded by the National Institute of Justice. The study analyzed 500 child sexual abuse reports to examine predictors of which cases moved forward to prosecution. It looked at the response to reports of child sexual abuse and the characteristics of cases that dropped out of the criminal justice system along the way.

“Of the reports of CSA we reviewed that involved perpetrators 16 and older, 50% stalled at the investigation stage, fewer than 25% were prosecuted, and only 14% resulted in a determination of guilt,” said Block, who led the study. “We identified many of the obstacles that prosecutors, child victims and their caregivers, and child advocates face in responding to these cases.”

The study, published in the journal Child Maltreatment, examined the different factors that impacted a case as it moved from intake to investigation and then from investigation to prosecution. Cases that did not move forward were influenced by factors including perpetrator age, several victim characteristics, support from the primary caregiver, and disclosure.

Based on this research, Dr. Williams, Dr. Block, and their colleagues developed the white paper, which delves into these factors to make actionable recommendations for achieving justice for all involved and for strengthening the safety of communities. It was written with input from many in the field, including prosecutors, child advocates, social workers, and pediatricians.

“Addressing the challenges documented by our research and finding and evaluating solutions will require the continued work of the justice system and the community,” said Williams, a criminologist who has also studied criminal justice system attrition in cases of sexual assaults perpetrated against adult victims. “Sustainable change also will require education and a shift in beliefs and social norms so that the occurrence of CSA is recognized, and community members are able to participate in protection and prevention efforts.”

The white paper, Prosecution of Child Sexual Abuse: Challenges in Achieving Justice, is co-authored by Dr. Williams and Dr. Block, as well as by Hannah M. Johnson, Ph.D., a recent doctoral candidate, and Michaela G. Ramsey and Alexandria P. Winstead, both Ph.D. students, all in the applied psychology and prevention science program in the Department of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

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