Investigating suspected abuse of a child
The Forensic Psychology Center for Children and Adolescents investigates suspected abuse in children in cases where the police has made a request for executive assistance.
Criminal and judicial process in suspected abuse of children
We have gathered information on the different stages of the criminal and judicial process and on the supervision of the child’s interests.
Anyone can report an offence to the police on suspicion of mistreatment of a child. In addition, the authorities within the sphere of notification obligation must file a child welfare notification in case of suspected offences against a child.
Once the police have been informed of a suspected offence, the police will consider whether a preliminary investigation should be opened. A preliminary investigation shall be conducted if there is reason to suspect that a crime has been committed. The threshold for opening a preliminary investigation is low, but simply reporting an alleged crime is not enough; the suspicion must be justified. It is worth remembering that the smaller the child, the more often there are misunderstandings about suspected crimes and involving interpretation of the child’s discussions or behavior by adults. The police shall not place anyone under suspicion of a crime lightly.
Based on the preliminary investigation, the police may decide that there is no reason to suspect a crime has been committed. The pre-trial investigation may not be conducted or it may be terminated also based on the decision of the prosecutor, if the conditions laid down in the Criminal Investigation Act for limiting pre-trial investigation exist. This can be done, for example, in the case of so-called suspected offences within the family, where the suspicion relates to a relatively minor act and the child and the family are estimated to benefit from other types of support and guidance rather than a criminal process.
In cases of suspected offences against children, the key pre-trial investigation measures are typically the hearing of the child and, if necessary, the child’s somatic examinations. A majority of children are heard by the police themselves, but the police can also ask for executive assistance in hearing the child from the Forensic Psychology and Forensic Psychiatry Units for Children and Adolescents. Assistance may be requested, for example, when there are known aspects related to the child’s level of development or special characteristics, or if a long period of time has elapsed since the suspected incident or it is assumed that the child’s account of things has been influenced. A child may be left unheard in exceptional cases if the consultation is not considered to achieve any added value, for example, if the child is so small that it is unlikely that a reliable report will be received. The situation is always assessed on a case-by-case basis.
A child’s account of things is often central and even the only evidence of a suspected crime against them. The child is usually heard one to three times. Hearing a child under the age of 15 is usually always recorded on audio and video recordings, so that it can be used as evidence in a trial if necessary. In addition to hearing the child, the police can also question suspects, potential witnesses, and conduct other investigative actions in the matter.
At the end of the preliminary investigation, the police compile a pre-trial record, which will be forwarded to the prosecutor. For each person suspected of a crime and for each act investigated, the prosecutor will assess separately whether there is sufficient evidence that a crime has been committed. Charges are brought when there are probable causes to support the guilt of the suspect. If there is insufficient evidence, the prosecutor will decide not to press charges, i.e. to make a decision to waiver prosecution, in other words, to discharge.
If the prosecutor decides to press charges, the criminal case will be heard in the District Court. The child does not need to appear at the trial in person when he or she is under 15 years of age during the trial and the hearing has been recorded in audio and video recording during the preliminary investigation. In its judgment, the District Court will decide whether the accused has committed a crime in the case and imposes a penalty and liability for compensation. The court may also dismiss the charge, for example, if there is insufficient evidence to convict. The District Court’s judgment can be appealed to the Court of Appeal.
If one of the parents or a person belonging to the family circle is suspected of committing a crime against a child, a guardian cannot represent the child. In this case, the child will be assigned a deputy trustee. The authorities are responsible for acquiring a trustee. The trustee’s task is to ensure that the matter proceeds in the best interests of the child. The child is also entitled to a legal counsel. In practice, the trustee assigned to a child often also acts as the legal counsel. It is the duty of the legal counsel to ensure that, when hearing a child, the preliminary investigation examines all the relevant issues in the criminal matter. The legal counsel submits claims for punitive and damages, assists the child in the preliminary investigation and trial, and takes care of the criminal proceedings in their entirety.
One key burden on children and families is the extended time it takes for the investigation and judicial process. It may also test one’s own idea of justice if a preliminary investigation is not started, no charges are filed, or the suspect is not sentenced. For a child, it is more important than the outcome of the criminal and legal process that the people who are important to the child support and listen to them, and that the child can continue to live as normally as possible. In some cases, the child and parents may also need the help and support of professionals. In this case, for example, information and support is available through Victim Support services for all stages of the processing of the case.
Period of evaluation at a Forensic Psychology Unit for Children and Adolescents
In the Forensic Psychology Unit for Children and Adolescents, we only act upon requests for executive assistance from the police.
Our unit investigates assault and sexual offences suspected of targeting a child or adolescents. The investigations are part of the preliminary investigation and they are conducted on the basis of a request for executive assistance from the police, prosecutor, or the court. Our activities are guided by the Act on Organising the Investigation of Sexual and Assault Offences against Children. We serve the area of the HUS hospital district and specific catchment areas (Kymsote, Eksote and the Päijät-Häme Joint Authority for Health and Wellbeing).
We also provide advice and guidance to the authorities by telephone on suspicions of abuse of children or adolescents. We provide training and consultation to our stakeholders (e.g. police, public prosecution service, social and health care services, early childhood education and care, and student welfare).
Our evaluation will be conducted in cooperation with the police and the child welfare services. The content of our examinations varies on a case-by-case basis and the necessary actions are always assessed according to the situation. Our working group consists of a child psychiatrist, psychologists, and social workers.
During our work, we assess the likelihood of the suspicion and whether the arising of the suspected crime can be explained in some other way. For this reason, we collect background information on the situation of the child and the family from social and health care services as well as child welfare services. Our actions are guided by the best interests of the child, taking care of the legal protection of all parties to the investigation, and evidence-based practices.
A child’s forensic psychological interview is conducted by a psychologist. In the interview situation, the psychologist is alone with the child as the police follow the interview in the back room. The interview will be recorded. The goal is to obtain the child’s own reliable account of the suspected events. There are usually 1 to 3 interviews. As a rule, the interviews are conducted on the premises of the unit. Sometimes a child is interviewed at the child’s school or daycare center, if it is evaluated as being in the best interests of the child.
If necessary, our social workers meet with the child’s guardians or other escorts. If necessary, we will also arrange a feedback meeting for the guardians. The conclusions of the evaluation period and the follow-up support needed by the child and family are always discussed also with the child welfare workers. The child and the family may also need support in situations where the suspicion of a crime is not confirmed.
The physician in our unit has the opportunity to make a referral for further treatment. Any somatic examinations of the child will be carried out separately at the hospital pursuant to a request for executive assistance from the police. The evaluation period conducted in the Forensic Psychology Unit for Children and Adolescents leaves no record in the child’s medical report other than the indication that the child has been referred to the unit.
Upon request, we will prepare an expert report to the police or prosecutor on the findings of our examinations. All material collected in the unit is preliminary investigation material and its publicity is decided by the police. Information on the decision of the preliminary investigation will be provided by the police.
Medical examination in suspected abuse of a child
If necessary, at the request of the police, the physician will carry out examinations as part of the preliminary investigation to establish any physical injuries.
As a rule, investigations related to suspected abuse are conducted in specialist medical care. The police and the health care authorities will assess the urgency with which a medical examination should be conducted. In general, the examination must be carried out as soon as possible after the incident. The aim is to conduct the examination during office hours whenever possible.
An examination conducted outside of office hours is required when injuries require swift medical evaluation or treatment, for example, if a rape has occurred or if it is assumed that the perpetrator’s DNA can be found on the victim. In these situations, the child/adolescent should arrive for examination without washing or bathing and the clothes that were on during the incident should be taken along in a paper bag. In the case of young children, such situations are rare.
The examination of the child begins with a regular medical examination, during which, among other things, the physician listens to the child’s heart and lungs, palpates the abdomen, and examines inside the mouth. The child is examined “from head to toe” so that nothing important remains undetected. Examination of the genitals of a small child differs from that of an adolescent or an adult in such a way that an external examination is usually sufficient in children. A gynecological internal examination is rarely needed with young children. The aim of the examination is to make the child feel as safe and calm as possible. The examination will not be conducted with force.
It is important that any injuries to the child are carefully examined and recorded. Photographs, sometimes also blood samples, urine samples and other necessary samples may be taken in connection with the examination. Sometimes the examination and the conversation that took place during it are recorded. The physician will prepare a statement to the police on the examination they have carried out.