Linda Williams, Ph.D., director of the Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative and senior research scientist at WCW, and Stephanie Block, Ph.D., assosiate professor at University of Massachusetts Lowell and collaborator with the initiative, recently completed a study on the prosecution of child sexual abuse and examined why so few cases lead to a conviction or guilty plea. Their findings will be the basis of a white paper for prosecutors, attorneys general, lawmakers, and child advocates offering specific solutions and policy recommendations to address the challenges faced in responding to these cases.
Funded by the National Institute of Justice, the study reviewed 500 reports of child sexual abuse to determine which reports resulted in prosecution and which cases made it to trial. The study also examined the characteristics of cases that dropped out of the criminal justice system along the way. Williams and Block found that less than 10 percent of the cases resulted in a conviction or guilty plea, and sought to understand why.
“Our study highlighted a number of obstacles to the prosecution of these cases,” said Williams. “They often come down to the word of a child versus the word of an adult. Prosecutors may hesitate to bring cases to jurors who might not understand that child victims typically delay disclosure of the abuse, some for months or years. And when the perpetrator is a close family member or friend, the child’s family may not support going forward to a trial.”
WCW’s mission is to translate research into action, and to make our work accessible and useful to those who have the power and desire to make positive change. For Williams and Block, the ultimate goal of their current work is to increase access to justice for victims and to promote successful prosecution of adult perpetrators. To that end, they aim to create a clearly written, accessible presentation of the research findings and, most importantly, to provide specific solutions and recommendations for next steps in addressing the challenges documented by this study. The white paper will reflect their collaborations with prosecutors and rely on partnerships built through their research to develop best practice guidelines for the field.
The white paper, provisionally titled: “Prosecution of Child Sexual Abuse: Achieving Justice for the Victims,” will be authored by Williams and Block along with prosecutors who have decades of experience prosecuting these crimes. During the preparation of the white paper, the authors will meet with several teams of prosecutors to ensure that the findings and recommendations are most useful to them.
The white paper is expected to be completed in 2019, and will then be disseminated by WCW online and through webinars and conference presentations. Training sessions may also be offered. “This white paper is an important outcome of our work,” said Williams. “Though dissemination of findings doesn’t always receive as much funding support as research does, it is critical to ensuring that our research leads to social change that is good for women, children, and families.”