Changes in Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect Cases Improve Police Attitudes

PHILADELPHIA -- Transferring responsibility for investigating reports of child maltreatment from child-welfare agencies to sheriffs' offices in Florida led to an improvement in attitudes among law-enforcement officers and caseworkers.

Researchers at the School of Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania found that law-enforcement officers became more aware of the social services available to children. They also became better attuned to the connection between child maltreatment and poverty.

In addition, the study did not find an increase in emergency placements or foster-care rolls, as some people had feared.

But the researchers were disappointed to discover that other positive outcomes such as a reduction in cases of child abuse did not happen right away.

"We thought it might improve the arrest rate or serve as a deterrent to child abusers, and none of these things happened," said Richard Gelles, interim dean of Penn's School of Social Work.

Yet the researchers are optimistic that the positive effects will come over time.

"It doesn't happen right away," Gelles said, citing the changes in the law affecting domestic violence victims that took eight years to reduce the number of cases.

Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas counties were required to transfer all investigations to the sheriff's offices; Broward County voluntarily did so. Currently there is a lack of criminal penalties for misdemeanor child abusers in those counties.

"Child abuse cases need to be taken more seriously," Gelles said. He is hopeful that one day the changes in the system will save children's lives.