Likely the most sensitive area of investigation for detectives, special victims units are highly specialized units that investigate cases of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and the neglect of children.
These units are essential when investigating cases of child abuse or neglect, as proper, immediate response is critical to the outcome of these cases. Special victims units are staffed with on-call investigators and attorneys, both of which focus their primary efforts on the welfare of the child.
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Child abuse is determined to have occurred when a parent, guardian, or other person in control or custody of a child aged 18 or younger engages in behavior that endangers the child’s welfare or well-being. Child abuse can take many forms, including:
- Purposeful physical injury upon the child
- Physical injury upon the child that causes or creates a substantial risk of death or serious injury
- Sexual abuse against the child
- Failure to supply the child with adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or supervision
- Failure to exercise a minimum degree of care for the child that results in the suffering of the child’s physical or emotional condition
Special victims units also investigate allegations of child pornography and child prostitution.
The Work of Criminal Investigators in Special Victims Units (SVU)
Criminal investigators within a police department’s special victims unit are specially trained to conduct sexual assault and physical abuse investigations, as well as any cases involving endangering the welfare of a child. This dedicated group of police investigator professionals must be able to deal with intensely personal, difficult, and emotionally charged situations while still expertly performing their jobs, which include:
- Establishing all the facts, evidence and supporting statements through victim and witnesses and other sources of information
- Collecting and organizing physical evidence, photographs, DNA materials, clothing, and fingerprints
Their work also often includes identifying, investigating, apprehending, and prosecuting child molesters; child pornography collectors or distributors; child pornographers; sexual offenders who target children; and child abusers. Personnel may also conduct investigations involving Internet child pornography.
Criminal investigators who investigate crimes against children must be able to utilize minimally threatening intervention processes as to ensure the personal dignity of the victims.
In addition to investigative personnel, a special victims unit may also have a staff of professionals who provide back-up for investigations of child abuse. Their responsibilities include conducting extraditions, identifying and charting patterns, providing assistance with pedophile investigations, and following up on cold cases.
Investigators within special victims units are responsible for providing support for the related components, such as:
- Forensic investigations
- Training and technical assistance
- Victim services
- Prevention and community education
Training Requirements for Investigators within Special Victims Units
Training is a crucial component for investigative jobs within a special victims unit. Detectives who investigate crimes against children must have a unique skillset, as they must not only be expert investigators, but they must also have a deep understanding and appreciation of the sensitivity of child abuse investigations.
Initial and ongoing training requirements are therefore commonplace among special victims investigators, with study focused on providing investigators with the most up-to-date interviewing and investigative techniques and strategies for coordinating multi-disciplinary teams as to ensure full victim restoration.
Training topics may include:
- Crime scene investigations
- Forensic interviewing
- Internet crimes against children
- Medical evaluation of child victims
- Sex trafficking
- The use of forensic science in child abuse investigations
How Criminal Investigators Respond to Crimes Against Children
When information is received regarding possible child abuse, the detectives of the special victims unit respond immediately, usually with a team of child treatment professionals and by coordinating efforts with the department of social services and child protection in their jurisdiction. Many jurisdictions also have hotlines that people may call if they feel that a child is in imminent danger. For example, the Philadelphia Police Department has a Line Squad, which is responsible for handling all incoming calls of child abuse, speaking with the family, and coordinating investigations.
Within larger jurisdictions, it is common for special victims units to be broken down into a number of squads or task forces, which focus on different areas of child abuse, including:
- Sexual abuse/battery
- Internet child pornography/transmission of child pornography/soliciting children for sex
- Domestic child abuse cases
- Child abuse and neglect cases involving caregivers