Why Aren’t More Child Sexual Abuse Cases Prosecuted?, with Stephanie Block, Ph.D.

Season 4Episode 18October 20, 2022

Most child sexual abuse cases don’t get prosecuted—why not, and what more could we do to support children and families?

If you’re a child abuse professional, at one time or another you’ve wondered, “Why was this case prosecuted but that one wasn’t?” Or felt frustrated because even though everyone on the multidisciplinary team believed the child had been abused, the case still couldn’t move forward.

These questions and discussions are a routine part of case review and everyday life on a multidisciplinary team. But they are also often a black box to everybody else: The teacher that reported the abuse, the community, and even the family itself. What would it mean if we could unpack those decisions and better understand how these decisions are made—and, more importantly, improve cases so that more are made? How might it change the way we think about justice and its role in healing if we truly come to grips with how very rare it is in real life? And how might we better support children and families that do go through the criminal justice process so that that in itself doesn’t add to the trauma?

Dr. Stephanie Block from UMass Lowell joins us to discuss her recent research into why more child sexual abuse cases aren’t prosecuted.

Topics in this episode:

  • Origin story (1:54)
  • Research foundation (4:28)
  • The hypotheses and findings (7:57)
  • Caregiver support (14:08)
  • Unexpected findings (22:41)
  • Prosecutors’ view (27:07)
  • Research and solutions (32:52)
  • Advice to policy makers (34:43)
  • For more information (38:22)


Stephanie Block, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Psychology, UMass Lowell

“Predictors of Prosecutorial Decisions in Reports of Child Sexual Abuse,” Block, S.; Johnson, H.; Williams, L.; Shockley, K.; Wang, E.; and Widaman, K. Child Maltreatment, 2022 Vol 0(0) 1-12. DOI: 10.1177/10775595221074375

Rare Justice: Why Aren’t More Cases Prosecuted?” Teresa Huizar, National Children’s Alliance research into practice message, March 21, 2022

Ted Cross, Ph.D., recently joined us on One in Ten to discuss “The Future of Possible in Children’s Advocacy Centers” (August 25, 2022)

For more information about National Children’s Alliance and the work of Children’s Advocacy Centers, visit our website at NationalChildrensAlliance.org. And join us on Facebook at One in Ten podcast.


Season 4, Episode 18

“Why Aren’t More Child Sexual Abuse Cases Prosecuted?”, with Dr. Stephanie Block

[intro music starts]

Teresa Huizar:
Hi, I’m Teresa Huizar, your host of One in Ten. In today’s episode, “Why Aren’t More Child Sexual Abuse Cases Prosecuted?”, I speak with Stephanie Block. She’s a professor and researcher at UMass Lowell, and she’s talking about the factors that influence the investigation and prosecution of child sexual abuse.

If you’re a child abuse professional, at one time or another you’ve wondered, “Why was this case prosecuted but that one wasn’t?” Or felt frustrated because even though everyone on the multidisciplinary team believed the child and believed they had been abused, it still couldn’t move forward.

Now, these are questions and discussions that are a routine part of case review and everyday life on a multidisciplinary team. But they are also often a black box to everybody else. The teacher that reported the abuse, the community, and even the family itself. What would it mean if we could unpack those decisions and better understand how these decisions are made—and, more importantly, improve cases so that more are made? How might it change the way we think about justice and its role in healing if we truly come to grips with how very rare it is in real life? And how might we better support children and families that do go through the criminal justice process so that that in itself doesn’t add to the trauma?

And finally, thank you to the prosecutors who participated in this study. It was a brave choice. We need more that do so that we understand more about how these decisions are made and how to improve these cases.

Now on to the episode. Please take a listen.

[1:54] Teresa Huizar:
Stephanie, welcome to One in Ten.

Stephanie Block: Thank you.

Teresa Huizar:
I was so interested to have you on because although there is research out there about how prosecutors make decisions about child sexual abuse cases, they don’t come along very often, and so we’re always excited when we see something that’s on point. And I’m just wondering, there’s lots of topics that you could research, and I’m sure have in the past as well, but how did you come to this one? What piqued your interest and made you think, “That’s what I want to research”?

Stephanie Block:
It was a couple different things. So I was looking into a couple different projects having to do with children in the legal system and child maltreatment, which is my area, and having some conversations with different people and some community partners. And I happen to have an office next to Linda Williams at UMass Lowell, where I’m employed. And Linda Williams was doing some work on case attrition about adult sexual assault and violence nationally. So we were having some conversations and I was thinking about how this work would apply to child sexual abuse. And at the same time I had done a postdoc with a pediatrician. Des Runyan was my primary mentor, my postdoc. And so we had had some conversations and I was working with Alice Newton who’s a pediatrician. We were having some conversations about some of her work in child abuse in the legal system. And I had spoken with some prosecutors in New England about their cases and what was happening. So it was kind of synergistic—there was a lot of different conversations that led to this project. And at the same time, the National Institute of Justice had a call that was willing to fund research practitioner partnerships, which was so exciting for me as an applied developmental psychologist interested in child maltreatment work.

So that’s how it came to be. The University of Massachusetts Lowell funded a pilot study that took longer than we thought where we were able to develop a coding form for our research that took years to establish, and we had an interdisciplinary group of community partners kind of contribute to that.

So it kind of started from the ground up where we partnered with our prosecutors and they told us what they wanted to know also. That was how the project was born.

[4:28] Teresa Huizar:
So one of the things that I thought your paper did very well is just sort of lay out the research that preceded you, you know—your own lit review in terms of what work has been done so far and what the findings have been.

Now, I’m not going to ask you to recount all of that because it was a very thorough review. But just sort of setting the stage for the conversation: When you think about what was known going into this, what were some key findings that the field already had where you say, well, it seems like even though there’s not a huge amount of research, there was enough research on major points to at least say, well, these things seem to be pretty consistent in terms of what we’re finding?

Stephanie Block:
So Ted Cross and his colleagues and Walsh had done some of the big work in this area. And we knew from some of the earlier work that the biggest finding was that not a lot of these cases were prosecuted, right? So people in the community are always so surprised when I tell them that, of reported cases, that so few of them—less than 10% on average, and the rates can vary—so few of them end up in a courtroom. Because I think from, you know, shows like Law and Order and just, you know, our wish for community safety, we want to think that there is some kind of quote unquote justice, whatever that looks like and that victims are getting the services they need, the community is safe, etc.

So I think, you know, the biggest shock was that—what we already knew, but is shocking, is that not a lot of these cases are moving forward. Something we’ve also talked about that is apparent in the research is, you know, where do we start counting these cases from? So there’s this, what we call the denominator problem, right?

So when we look at quote unquote prosecution rates or success rates—and I want to talk to you about how we define success in these cases—where do we start from? Do we decide that, you know, of the cases that maybe could move forward, which ones end up in a courtroom? Or the ones that are charged that go end up in a courtroom? Do we consider a guilty verdict the ones that are successful?

So we thought long and hard about how we were going to define success and then where our starting point was going to be. So we decided to cast a really wide net compared to some previous work. And we started with any case where there was any suspected allegation of child sex abuse for our study that we’re talking about today.

And there are pros and cons to doing that, right? So we have some cases where there’s very little information, if nothing happened, if it was immediately closed. So in the place where we collected our data, any referral, any report of child sex abuse in the state was included as a potential case in our study. And so we could have cases where there was a referral and not much happened with that case. And then we could have cases that ended up in a courtroom.

So we randomly selected our 500 cases knowing that we were casting a wide net and that we were going to have a large variety in the information that we had in our cases, which isn’t fun from a data perspective. But we did that intentionally because we wanted to get a scope of the trajectory of these cases and understand what was happening at each phase of the decision making process.

[7:57] Teresa Huizar:
One of the things that you did differently and I think was helpful is to look at it from a staged perspective. In other words, really looking at, you know, sort of what are barriers to the investigation, but then what’s a barrier to the prosecutorial decision and proceeding on past that? And I think that recognizing that those two things—having insight in the fact that those two things might be different and the barriers might be different, I thought was a wonderful way of advancing the work and what we really know about this.

I just want to ask you, you know, kind of before we dive further into that though, what were your hypotheses going in?

Stephanie Block:
We were guided by previous work, so we knew that likely few of our cases would end up in a courtroom. Based on previous research, we made predictions that having multiple experiences with CPS [child protective services] or prior experience with the criminal justice system would be that those cases would be taken more seriously. No one else had broken it down in the multiple steps that we did, so it was harder to have specific predictions around that. But we knew—we did make some predictions, I believe, about severity of abuse. But not all of our predictions were as we expected.

[9:22] Teresa Huizar:
I’m going to turn to that in a second, so this is the teaser.

Stephanie Block:
OK. [Laughter]

Teresa Huizar:
People listen in because we’re going to talk about what turned out to be different. But before we do that, I just want to kind of—just for our listeners who haven’t read the study, and I hope all of you will, um, we covered it in our research-to-practice abstract some months ago because we thought it was so important. But hopefully folks will go back and read the study in full, and you’ll be linked in our show notes.

But for those who haven’t yet, you also looked at some really interesting factors in terms of what might affect these decisions at different stages. And some of those had to do with victims. Some of those had to do with offenders. And some of those had to do with other contextual matters. Without yet getting into all your findings, can you just talk about some of the things that you looked at, which I thought were very interesting in and of themselves?

Stephanie Block:
Yeah, and I should add too, on predictors, we of course knew that disclosure would be important and families would be a factor. So our main, uh, categories had to do with—and this is why our coding form took so long to create and develop and I should say was, you know, very long. And we spent up to six hours coding each of our 500 cases.

We grouped, our variables, our predictor variables we call them. So we looked at factors about the victim. So the child themselves, we looked at factors about the perpetrator, we looked at family factors about the child. We had records from child protective services. We could look if the perpetrator had prior charges. We could see if the child had other cases as a victim. We had a lot. And then we looked at evidentiary factors—

Teresa Huizar:
Whether there was corroborating evidence, things of that nature.

Stephanie Block:
Any other evidence. And then if there was a trial, we had a whole separate packet about what information was available in the trial.

[11:27] Teresa Huizar:
So let’s just kind of walk through these one by one, because I found it very interesting to look at all the different things that did or didn’t make a difference.

Stephanie Block:

Teresa Huizar:
So turning to the victim for a moment.

Stephanie Block:

Teresa Huizar:
What were your findings about what victim characteristics or context mattered at the investigative level and at the prosecutorial–sort of, is this going to move forward in the prosecution decision?

Stephanie Block:
The biggest issue was the disclosure, right? So if the victim didn’t want to talk or tell, it didn’t affect intake, it didn’t affect investigation.

So if the victim didn’t want to talk, but there was suspicion that a prosecutor felt was worth investigating, even if the victim wasn’t disclosing, there could still be an investigation. But ultimately, if the victim didn’t want to disclose and didn’t want to cooperate and didn’t want to go through a trial, then that wasn’t moving to prosecution.

So that is where the victim disclosure and victim willingness to cooperate is most important at that prosecute phase. Does that make sense?

[12:35] Teresa Huizar:
And I thought it was—and this ties to it, I think.

Stephanie Block:

Teresa Huizar:
There were some age factors around. I don’t think it’s going to, you know, surprise anybody who’s one of your listeners that very, very young children—

Stephanie Block:

Teresa Huizar:
—you know, it’s difficult to move forward with their cases. In part for the reason that you just talked about, that you may not have a clear disclosure or enough of a disclosure or ability really to participate in court proceedings. And that seemed to play out in your data as well, if I’m remembering correctly.

Stephanie Block:
We don’t have victim age predicting significantly above and beyond the other factors in our final models, but we do know that the prosecutors discuss that as a reason maybe why a forensic interview wasn’t conducted, which would—

Teresa Huizar:

Stephanie Block:
—which would prevent them from moving really beyond the investigation stage, if that makes sense.

So we have so much data that things kind of, we call it, they’re covariate or like they’re—

Teresa Huizar:

Stephanie Block:
—so correlated with each other. Sometimes we see other factors just coming out as more important.

[13:35] Teresa Huizar:
What did you find out about gender? Does it make a difference?

Stephanie Block:
We did have some gender findings in our three level model, but when we really broke it down to investigate and prosecute, we actually found that other factors were more important.

So we had gender and CPS history popping in initially. But really what’s driving in terms of victim variables, the most important victim variable was their willingness to proceed.

Teresa Huizar:

Stephanie Block:
So if they want to move forward, that is going to predict prosecution.

[14:08] Teresa Huizar:
You know, it—just as you’re talking about this, it just sits with me, and not always well, what we expect from kids.

You know, like, “Well, we’ll move forward if you cooperate.” It’s like, gosh, if you’re 6 or 7 or 8, that’s a lot of pressure. You know, we don’t even do that with adult DV [domestic violence] victims anymore. We don’t go, “Well, only if you think it’s a good idea.”


Stephanie Block:
If you want to. Right.

Teresa Huizar:
So it’s like, what is that about in our movement still? Gosh.

Stephanie Block:
It is. But I think it’s also related to two other things. So, you know, none of the prosecutors we worked with—like they told us they would never force a child or pressure a child to take the stand, which is a good thing. Right? So, if the kid didn’t want to do it, they weren’t going to make them do it, which is great.

However, I think related to this issue is an issue of caregiver support, which I could talk to you for hours about, because I think if caregivers were more supported, children might—

Teresa Huizar:

Stephanie Block:
—feel more supported. I also think that we need more education about what the process is about, and if kids were more supported, they might feel more comfortable with the process.

I don’t think every child who’s a victim needs to go to court. But maybe more would if they knew more the ways in which there could be positive outcomes for them to do so. That said, in life post-COVID, we know that, you know, delays to get to a trial that used to be on average maybe one to two years are now looking like closer to two to four years in some places.

There’s lots of reasons why kids don’t want to go to court and we perhaps aren’t providing them enough support to get to court.

I didn’t mean to rhyme, but I did.

[15:55] Teresa Huizar:
It’s quite all right. And I certainly agree with the fact that we should provide kids more support when they have to go to court.

So let’s talk a little bit about caregivers because it also struck me, I’m glad you want to talk about that cause I wanted to talk to you about that.

Stephanie Block:

Teresa Huizar:
So talk a little bit about your findings around caregivers.

Stephanie Block: Yes. So caregiver support is one of our most important variables in the study. And in fact, in our initial conversations, prosecutors, the first thing they talked about were the moms of the victims. They wanted to talk a lot about that and we intentionally—we knew it was going to be a thing and we intentionally added lots of questions to our coding form about it.

And one of my now former doctoral students, she just got her Ph.D. this summer, Hannah Johnson, made this her dissertation and actually did some follow-up work to this paper that hopefully, um, will be published soon—

Teresa Huizar:

Stephanie Block:
—where she did some qualitative interviews with some caregivers and the data are so rich and so amazing.

So in our study, cases where the caregiver was rated as supportive were three times more likely to be investigated and five times more likely to proceed to prosecution. And we know from the prosecutors themselves that this is just so important and if the caregiver isn’t on board and supportive that it’s really hard to move forward.

However, and I can tell you just to preview some of Dr. Johnson’s findings, the caregivers do not feel supported themselves. Some of the quotes from her qualitative work really point out how the caregivers feel like they’re either viewed as like a villain or wallpaper, I think was one of the quotes. And even some of our files, even though we did a retrospective review of, of files, we could see evidence in the files of the caregiver support almost being a trajectory over time, where like they were sometimes viewed as more or less supportive by the prosecution team but overall were considered supportive. And we think that a big place, you know, when we look at our files and we look at our findings overall, there’s some things we can change and some things we can’t, right? And caregivers support is a place where we think there can be a lot more intervention because if we can support these caregivers more and they can support their children more, we think there can be better outcomes for children and for the community.

[18:32] Teresa Huizar:
When you look at that, could you see in the data that you collected or elsewhere what it is that made caregivers feel unsupported? Like, how, do we know enough to sort of drill into that and go, “Well, this is the thing that leaves them feeling like,” as you said, that the quote, “wallpaper or a villain”?

Stephanie Block:
Yeah. So, first of all, spending years collecting these data, right, I was just floored by how many cases were in these offices. I just found myself thinking like, as a parent myself, you know, if my child was one of these case files right there, there are so many. The number of cases there are assigned to a prosecutor, right, knowing the turnover rates in these offices, knowing that many of these prosecutors are dealing with limited budgets, vicarious trauma, you could see that these people don’t probably have the time, energy, or bandwidth to deal with everyone involved in the case, right?

So their job is to deal with the kid or to deal with the case or the legal aspects of the case. And we talk about the kids, uh, but we’re not really looking at the whole family system, right? Or, you know, in psychology we talk about like the Bronfenbrenner model of like everyone involved and the multiple layers of the multiple systems. And the closest one to the child, right, is the family. So if that parent doesn’t have their basic needs met, they can’t support and protect the kids. So, often, we would hear from a prosecutor, well, like, this mom isn’t supportive and she’s protecting a perpetrator, but that perpetrator is paying her rent or paying her bills. You know, this mom has a job and she can’t drive. She doesn’t have a car, she can’t drive to the CAC for an interview and she can’t miss work to come to court and to interviews. And like this whole process, you have to assume a certain amount of privilege to even participate in this process, right?

So there are some moms or caregivers who just can’t, and don’t because their basic needs aren’t met from that, you know, Maslow’s hierarchy system. Right. So it is just not even an option in their wheelhouse to even think about this level of an intervention for their, their child and family.

Does that make sense?

[21:01] Teresa Huizar:
You know, one of the things I’m thinking about, and I’d be very curious about the perspectives around it, are the actual victim witness coordinators within those prosecutors’ offices. I mean, almost every—if not every—prosecutor’s office has them. And their very job is to support victims and their caregivers when they are going to come to court.

And so I’m curious about a few things. One, were they included in the study in any way? And secondarily, if so, you know, what did we find from that? Or is that still an area to explore?

Stephanie Block:
So, we did have some of that information. I would say that just like the prosecutors, they have too many cases, not enough funds, not enough services. I mean, we can’t even, in most places, access therapists for kids, not to mention therapists for the moms. Many of these moms were victims themselves. And I keep saying moms, it’s not all moms, but many of the caregivers are moms. Many of the caregivers were victims themselves. Many of them need their own therapeutic services. This is a traumatic event for them, right? Finding out that your child has been victimized is traumatic. I know when I did my own dissertation, I was interviewing caregivers of adolescent victims. And so many of those moms talked about the cycle of violence, how they were victims of child abuse and tried so hard to protect their kids and didn’t.

Those moms need services. They need support around their own trauma history. And some of them, it’s not that—if we take the financial piece aside—it’s not that they don’t want to help their kids, it’s that they don’t know how.

[22:41] Teresa Huizar:
Well that, and they may be very triggered by it all.

I mean, if you have your own abuse history, then the more someone else is talking about abuse, you know, the more you feel triggered by that. And so I think, you know, you’re right to point out that there are lots of areas to focus on with caregiver support. It’s not—I mean, the sort of practical matters of jobs and childcare and all of that are very real. But there are elements that are beyond that, that are also influencing these things and that we need to be thinking about.

You know, a few minutes ago you said, that you had some things that you anticipated would show up in the study, and then you had some things that were surprises to you in the findings.

So talk a little bit about what—you know, we’ve teased it for our listeners, so now we have to tell them—

Stephanie Block:

Teresa Huizar:
—what was it that we found that these things, you’re like, “Wow, that was not what I was expecting”?

Stephanie Block:
Yeah, this project has been very humbling in many ways. So I think first I assumed, you know, we know that having medical evidence or any kind of what people would call quote unquote hard evidence in these cases, like videotaped or hard evidence in child sex abuse cases, is very rare, right? Like some stats say less than 5%. So I thought, you know, the few cases that we randomly selected where there were medical findings would be prosecuted. That was not the case in our study. And we had a meeting one day where I was like, “Let’s pull all the cases with medical findings and read them and see what happened.”

And sure enough, that was not the case. So we had, you know, one case where there were medical findings, but we basically had a very young child with a sexually transmitted infection. So it was charged, it actually moved to the third phase of our—well, it had moved to prosecution. Like they weren’t—the prosecutors were not closing this case. But they couldn’t figure out who the perpetrator was. So the perpetrator was unknown in that case, and nothing happened with it. And that surprised me.

We had another case where there was videotaped evidence, but it ended up not moving forward because the perpetrator died while in prison.

I thought these were cases that would end up in guilty convictions, because like there was no question, quote unquote right, that there was something that occurred, but even those cases didn’t end the way that I thought that they would.

The relationship between the victim and perpetrator variable was probably the most complicated variable in the entire study.

We tried to get as much quantitative data as we could out of the project, but I could—there’s so much qualitative data as well, like written in words, because everything was so complicated. So, you know, a, a perpetrator might have been like, called “Uncle So-and-so” but isn’t really a biological uncle, but is also kind of biologically related because it’s mom’s third cousin type of scenario.

And I was like, “Okay, how am I going to enter that as a code? I need it to fit in into my one-through-10 boxes.” And you know, that wasn’t happening as a researcher. So I think figuring out how to code variables that we thought would be simpler or quantifiable that just weren’t. We had an “unknown” or “not applicable” or “unclear variable” that if we circled that or “other,” then we would type out, write out why. That happened so much more often.

I thought that by the end of this project, I could tell you of my 500 cases, like “child sex abuse cases, not all the time, but often fall into one of like 20 categories or 20 narratives. And this is what most of the cases, look like. We have our peer on peer, we have our, you know, mom’s boyfriend, we’ve got this, that, and the other one.”

And we tried to make categories of our cases, and it was laughable. It was actually laughable. Because you know, as people who do this work know, they’re just so nuanced. So you do see themes, um, that emerge, but these cases were all just so difficult and different. And I also didn’t expect, we ended up in the publication that you read, kind of pulling out the juvenile offenders and looking at them differently.

But we spent many days looking at those issues and looking at, at the juvenile offenders because it is a different issue. So those were some of the things that surprised me.


[27:07] Teresa Huizar:
Well, and you know, it’s sometimes it’s good to be surprised in research because it gives you avenues to look further into.

I’m just wondering, you know, your paper’s been out a little while and undoubtedly the offices that you worked with have had an opportunity to see the results, and I’m curious about what their reaction was to it. Were they surprised by any of it, or did they go, “We could have told you that before you ever went down the path”? Or something in between, or something else together?

Stephanie Block:
We have maintained really good relationships. So we checked in with them at every step of the way. So we were like, “Does this result make sense to you? What does this mean? Like, what does this mean to you?” And, you know, we gave them an opportunity to see the results and give us feedback on the findings.

And we have—we have a lot more coming actually. So our paper is going to be—because we recognize that like a prosecution isn’t the only successful outcome—

Teresa Huizar:
That’s right.

Stephanie Block:
—in cases. So we have a paper now coming on the non-prosecutorial outcome. So what’s happening when there isn’t a prosecution in most of our cases? What are the other things that are happening?

So we coded that as well. But we think that, you know, getting information from our community partners helps us frame the work and the questions, but also how we interpret the answers. Some of our findings, they were like, “Yeah. Told you so.” [Laughter] Right? Like, “Told you that.” But it’s validating for them to have the empirical evidence. Right?

To be like, “Okay, that makes sense.” Or to know, because we were in four different offices to see what’s similar and different and, you know, we merged all the data. But it’s helpful to see what common problems are and to think about, once we did the coding form, everybody does everything differently, but you know, they’re like, “Oh, this is a helpful form. Maybe we should all use this form.”

And I’m like, “Yes, let’s all track things similarly. That will help my next round of research, thank you very much.”

So there have been pros and cons and I think for the most part, nothing is super shocking to them. But I think the stuff around caregivers is what’s most interesting. And also, it’s been kind of … some of the pieces about like how much there is, like the volume of cases and how much work it is, and how it would be impossible really for them to address all the needs of the caregivers that they really need, and like more money and more staff to do what we want them to do well.

And I think another piece too that we’ve had a lot of discussion about is the forensic interview. So when they ask for it, should they ask for more than one? The timing of whether they asked for it, the issue of, you know, some people seem hesitant to get kids on the record more than once because they might contradict themselves. And you know, are you comfortable with that? Can you address that in a courtroom if this case goes to court? And I think, you know, prosecutors are of course trained to prepare for getting a case to the courtroom, but so few of these cases end up there. So thinking about opportunities across this whole process to get more information for kids, be prepared to address inconsistencies that come up, and really just serve children and the community.

[30:14] Teresa Huizar:
I think that, you know, lack of resources are a real issue and volume is—just across the entire system, right? Whether you’re talking about the criminal justice side or CPS. On the other hand, I feel like sometimes we let ourselves off the hook by talking about volume. There’s also this piece about the mom sitting right in front of you who you’ve made feel like a villain that didn’t really have anything to do with the volume.

So I’m just wondering, like what are we actually learning from this and that we might do differently? The legislature’s probably not going to dump a ton of money additionally into the system. Right? So we can’t start just feeling hopeless and hopeless about that.

Stephanie Block:
Right, right.

Teresa Huizar:
So, you know, you’ve been working with these data for a long time now, even longer than you anticipated, and it sounds like you are doing wonderful follow-up studies, which I love to hear.

But you know, thinking about the implications not only for prosecutors and victim witness coordinators but the entirety of the multidisciplinary team, including Children’s Advocacy Centers. What do you think the implications are for what we ought to be doing collectively around caregiver support?

Stephanie Block:
So I can tell you to, just to preview some of Hannah’s dissertation—Dr., Dr. Johnson’s dissertation.

Teresa Huizar:
I love it. Congratulations to her.

Stephanie Block:
Yes. She found that the caregivers particularly did not feel supported by child protective services in general, which, you know, understandably. She also found that when it was a romantic partner of the caregiver that was being accused of hurting their child, that they were more likely to be flagged for neglect, the primary caregiver. But mostly they’re saying, the caregivers are saying that they need services. So whether that looks like peer support groups, mental health services, I think they need at—and I don’t want to say this, I know CACs have enough to do—but I think they really need their own intervention perhaps at the CAC level.

I know they can get parenting classes, but they probably need some sort of mental health support and service, whether it comes in a peer support group or direct mental health services to deal with their own trauma and how to parent a child who’s been a victim and then perhaps some education about navigating the criminal justice system should they choose to do that.

[32:52] Teresa Huizar:
I think that you are really on point even with where CACs are thinking. You know, we just did some surveying around our own strategic plan and an issue that came up across the field as a number one priority was supporting caregivers more. So I think that there is this recognition in a way that maybe had not happened previously to the same extent that, you know, we spent, and we’ll continue to spend a lot of time focusing on children’s mental health, but you can’t forget that that’s intimately connected to the mental health of their caregiver. And if that isn’t good, then the work you’re doing with a child is not going to be as effective. So it’s interesting to see, even in a completely different topic in terms of your study, how this pops up, that caregiver support is just absolutely essential in these cases.

When you think about, you know, and it sounds like you already have research underway, but in terms of sort of the next wave of research that you’re either involved in currently or would like to see, where does that take you?

Stephanie Block:
We have applied for some funding to do some interventions with caregivers.

So we’ve interviewed them. We want to interview more caregivers to look at more caregivers nationally about their experiences and what their needs are. And then we’ve started looking at some interventions to help them feel more supported so that they can understand these systems and understand how to support their children.

And, you know, recognizing that they are hesitant to trust some of these systems. Some of them have reported immigration issues. Some of them don’t trust our systems because of systemic racism. So there are some major obstacles that we will need to overcome if we want to support children and their families. But we’re going to have to keep all of that in mind in designing these interventions.

[34:43] Teresa Huizar:
I am going to be so interested to see the results of that. We’ll have to have you come back on staff and talk to us again—

Stephanie Block:
Can’t wait.

Teresa Huizar:
—about this because you’re doing some fascinating work.

Stephanie Block:
Thank you.

Teresa Huizar:
So when you think about, beyond kind of the local service provision, you know, in a given community or even across a system like ours, it seems to me that there are probably some policy implications to this too.

Stephanie Block:

Teresa Huizar:
What do you think, you know, if you had the ear of policy makers, because policy makers talk all the time as though prosecutions happen all the time, you know?

Stephanie Block:
Right, right.

Teresa Huizar:
So what is your advice to policy makers if you had their ear for just a moment about how to strengthen the system?

Stephanie Block:
First of all, we need more money. They have to give us more money. I just think that to do this well, we need more money. We often are asked this question: Well, is, you know, the glass half empty or half full? Where have we come?

I think there are still many myths and misconceptions about child’s sex abuse that we can dispel with education.

I think that they need to invest in these cases by increasing the capacity of individuals and communities. I think we need systems that are going to track the disposition of these cases better. And I think we need to invest in learning from victims what justice means for them.

Because again, we know it’s not always going to trial. So I think to inform the policy, we need to talk to the victims. But I think ultimately we need to invest more in the handling of these cases and the resources for victims. And there’s lots of different ways I think we can do that, but the short answer is going to come to, I think we need to invest more in child abuse because people assume—like we’re looking at the tip, tip, tip of the iceberg here when we look at these trials.

Even in my study, we looked at reports of abuse. We know that, because of delayed disclosure and people who never disclose, that that’s not even inclusive of all the child sex abuse that’s happening. And we’re not even talking about trafficking, which is like a whole other department. So if we truly care about these issues, more needs to be done.

[37:02] Teresa Huizar:
I couldn’t have said it better. I totally agree that there needs to be more investment and more needs to be done.

Stephanie Block:

Teresa Huizar:
What have I not asked you that I should have, or anything else that you wanted to make sure that you talked about while you were here with us today?

Stephanie Block:
I don’t, I don’t know. I could really talk to you just forever about this work, but I think that’s the most of it. We’re going to have the opportunity to meet too. I hear you’re coming to Boston.

Teresa Huizar:
Oh! Excellent!

Stephanie Block:
I sit on the Massachusetts Children’s Alliance board with Tom King.

Teresa Huizar:
Wonderful. Yes. So I will see you in mere weeks then, because I think we’re having a reception that you guys will be at.

Stephanie Block:
Yes, I will be there in November, so I’ll look forward to that. But I think that covered everything I wanted to talk about.

Teresa Huizar:
Until your next research study is published and then you can come back and talk about that.

Stephanie Block:
I would, I would love that. Yeah, so we have some more coming on the non-prosecutorial outcomes, the caregivers, and some work on disclosure too. My other newly minted doctoral student, Kristy Shockley, is doing some work on the chains of disclosure and how these kids told.

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[38:02] Teresa Huizar:
That’s wonderful. Well, thank you so much for your coming on of course, but more importantly for the research that you’re doing into such a critical area that affects the lives of so many kids and families.

And we’re just grateful that you shared the results with us, and we’ll look forward to you being back here next time with something else exciting to share.

Stephanie Block:
Thank you.

[38:22] Teresa Huizar:
Thanks for listening to One in Ten. If you like this episode, please share it with a friend. And give us a review on your favorite place to listen. And for more information about this episode or any others, please visit our podcast website at OneInTenPodcast.org

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