Legal Decision-Making in Child Sexual Abuse Investigations: Factors That Influence Prosecution
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This mixed-method, multiphase study explored factors associated with child sexual abuse cases that are accepted for prosecution. Prosecution of child sexual abuse is the most consequential approach communities have for addressing perpetrators, yet as many as 72% of perpetrators evade prosecution despite evidence of the crime (Cross, Walsh, Simone, & Jones, 2003). In order to explore the decision to prosecute, quantitative and qualitative data were sequentially integrated across three phases of study. This research incorporated prosecutor perceptions surrounding influential factors to analyze 100 child sexual abuse case records and forensic interviews for children who provided a disclosure through a Children’s Advocacy Center. This exploration concluded with prosecutor reviews of 10 prosecuted cases. Analytic methods included logistic regression modeling to determine predictive factors associated with a decision to prosecute and framework analysis to further confirm and expand upon the factors found to influence prosecution. Findings across all phases of study indicate that prosecution is most strongly predicted by caregiver support, the availability of other evidence, and family engagement in services. Additionally, emergent themes indicate that the decision to prosecute requires an ongoing evaluation of the evidence and a balanced approach. These findings present opportunities for multidisciplinary teams of professionals to provide assistance to families who are likely to interface with legal proceedings. Findings support prosecution of sexual abuse when appropriate as one component in a system wide approach to child sexual abuse prevention.