Responses vary about how best to reduce the trauma caused to children and families during sexual abuse investigations–”particularly ones facing the disproportionate number of black families.

Raelene Freitag, director of the Children’s Research Center in Madison, Wis., advocates an approach called “structured decision-making.” The approach acknowledges the tendency of people’s brains to make snap and emotional judgments that could be biased and provides a set of clearly defined, observable and research-based items to make a decision that the investigator’s supervisor can verify.

“Nobody’s a bad person because your brain works a certain way,” she said. “An emotional response is not truth. When a child’s safety is at stake, it’s essential to have some objective, research-based criteria in place.

“There’s reason to believe structured decision-making, if applied correctly, can lead to protecting against the bias that could contribute to disproportionality,” Freitag said, adding that these criteria include determining whether the alleged perpetrator has access to the child or if the child is afraid to go home.

But Theresa Matthews, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services regional administrator for child protection for Cook County North, said the Child Endangerment Risk Assessment Protocol investigators have used since 1994–”one that’s currently being revised–”is neutral and thus avoids investigator bias.

Richard Calica, who designed the protocol, said it relies on objective criteria and dismissed supporters of structured decision-making. “Don’t try and use language that makes me believe that you’re more scientific,” he said. “It’s useless information to know that your neurons are involved.”

For her part, Dorothy Roberts, a law professor at Northwestern University, suggested a fundamental shift in the department’s orientation toward the communities it serves. She said the department needs “another approach to the child welfare system that shifts from becoming involved only when there are allegations of abuse and neglect to a more general support system.”

Carl Bell, director of the Institute for Juvenile Research at the University of Illinois at Chicago, called for family strengthening measures. By that, he meant identifying areas of greatest needs and providing training in parenting and types of interventions. These stronger families will reduce the frequency of child sexual abuse and increase the likelihood of community involvement to prevent abuse, he said.

“Rather than drop a dime, you babysit for the kids,” said Bell, who has done similar work in McLean County and seen a reduction in the incidence of child sexual abuse.

Jeff is the founder and executive director of the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ) and the Padnos/Sarosik Endowed Professor of Civil Discourse at Grand Valley State University....