Although there may be others, there are generally five types of professionals involved in investigations of sexual abuse.


Child protective services (CPS) investigators are employed by either local law enforcement agencies or the Department of Children and Families. They conduct investigations only when it is suspected that the offender is in a caretaking role for the child. If the suspected abuse was committed by someone other than a caregiver, then the Florida Abuse Hotline takes the information and then immediately forwards it to the appropriate law enforcement agency.

Upon receiving a report from the Florida Abuse Hotline, CPS conducts an investigation within a specified time frame (typically within 24 or 48 hours). The goal of CPS is to determine whether or not abuse has occurred and/or is likely to occur in the future. It also decides whether the child is safe

in the home. While these decisions are being made, the CPS worker receives input from other professionals and from non-professionals (such as parents, children, neighbors and relatives), but the final decisions lie with CPS.

Sexual abuse cases are handled somewhat differently from other referrals to CPS. In these cases, CPS and law enforcement must, by state law, work together. This often results in joint investigations and always in the sharing of information. The law enforcement agency gathers evidence that may lead to criminal charges. CPS focuses on the child’s safety. They also work to keep families intact or to quickly reunify families once they are confident the child will be safe.


The information provided in this section is a general overview of law enforcement practices. Practices vary widely by county, and your local Children’s Advocacy Center is best suited to answer questions regarding practices in your specific region. For example, in larger communities there may be a Special Victims Unit with investigators trained specifically in child sexual abuse cases. However, smaller communities may have only two or three investigators who investigate all crimes, and they may not have specialized training in sexual assault and/or the sexual assault of children. The following information provides law enforcement best practices and can be used as a guideline of what to generally expect throughout the investigation process.

The Model Policy on Investigating Child Abuse was established by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) National Law Enforcement Policy Center. It outlines the ideal practices for investigating child abuse cases, stating that “…all complaints of child abuse should be taken seriously, whether eyewitness or secondhand accounts, or whether filed personally or anonymously.” That means that you, as a parent of an abused child, have the right to expect an informed law enforcement response and a full and fair investigation of your report. No decision should be made to dismiss a case until a thorough investigation has been conducted.

Parents of an abused child have the right to an informed response and a full and fair investigation.

The document also states:

“Police officers must be in a position to make knowledgeable judgments about suspected child abuse and neglect cases based on an awareness of the signs and symptoms of such crimes.”

– Pg 2, Model Policy on Investigating Child Abuse

The IACP model policy emphasizes key aspects for law enforcement officers to consider when investigating child abuse cases. The policy also points out several features unique to children:

Any time law enforcement encounters potential child abuse situations, the area should be treated as a crime scene, even if the abuse occurred in the past. When dealing with suspected child abuse, the documentation and collection of evidence are crucial for the investigation and possible prosecution.


Children’s Advocacy Centers (CAC) are child-friendly facilities developed specifically for interviewing and providing services to sexually abused children. For example, a CAC’s interview area is equipped with one-way mirrors and/or video recorders, so that interviews can be observed without troubling the child. CACs are available in communities throughout Florida.

CACs have specialized units called Child Protection Teams (CPT) for handling child abuse cases. The Child Protection Team program brings together experts in many different fields to help protect children. It is a medically directed, multidisciplinary program that works with local sheriff’s offices and the Department of Children and Family Services in cases of child abuse and neglect to supplement investigation activities. They make referrals as necessary (for example, to a mental health professional). They can (1) evaluate suspected cases of child abuse and neglect, (2) assess things in a child’s life that increase risk and those that can provide strength and protection, and (3) provide recommendations for protecting children from harm. CPTs work to make a child’s environment safer whenever possible. They also conduct forensic interviews and medical exams for children and adolescents.

CPTs provide:

  • Medical diagnosis and evaluation
  • Nursing assessments
  • Child and family assessments
  • Psychological and psychiatric evaluations
  • Specialized and forensic interviews
  • Expert court testimony

If child abuse or neglect is reported to the Florida Abuse Hotline and accepted for investigation, the case is automatically eligible for CPT assessment. CPTs are available to communities throughout the state. There are no financial costs for CPT services. Because Florida legislators understood that child abuse and neglect were complex issues, they funded the establishment of Child Protection Teams (CPTs). For more information see Florida Statute 39.3035 – Child advocacy centers; standards; state funding.

As stated, CPTs can perform a medical exam to collect evidence, if possible. Otherwise the exam can be postponed for a few hours until there is a health care professional experienced in child sexual abuse is available. Evidence may be damaged or destroyed through activities such as bathing, brushing teeth, eating, using the bathroom or washing the clothes worn during the abusive incident.

-The information on CPTs has been taken from the Children’s Medical Services.


Whenever abuse is suspected, the child should be taken to a medical professional for a complete physical examination. This helps to provide documentation of recent and past injuries and uncover patterns of abuse. (However, not all abuse results in evidence that can be seen during a medical examination.) Generally, doctors only see the necessity of an immediate exam when the abuse is recent and/or there is concern about injury or disease. Otherwise the exam can be postponed for a few hours until there is an experienced health care professional is available. This person should have sufficient time available to conduct a genital exam and necessary tests as part of a general physical exam.

Generally, a doctor or other medical professional assigned to a Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) will conduct exams for children and adolescents through the age of 17. (CACs provide a child-oriented facility developed specifically for interviewing and providing services to sexually abused children; see above.) Exam rooms are child-friendly and avoid the sterile atmosphere of an emergency room, but in some communities children 12 years and older go to their local emergency room. In both places, qualified staff can conduct a forensic exam.

Forensic Exams, DNA, and Prosecution

Parents are allowed to be with their child throughout the exam procedure, and they can ask that certain forensic procedures not be conducted and stop the exam at any point. Forensic exams are conducted by a medical doctor or other medically-trained professional with specialized training in conducting them on children (that is, people under 18 years of age).

Forensic evidence should be collected as soon as possible after the latest incident of abuse. DNA evidence can only remain viable for up to 120 hours; it does degrade with time. It may be damaged or destroyed through activities such as bathing, brushing teeth, eating, using the bathroom or washing the clothes worn during the abusive incident. Avoid these activities if there is any possibility you may want your child to be examined. However, if some of these activities occurred, you should still pursue the exam in the chance that not all DNA evidence was lost.

Forensic exams, which collect evidence to support prosecution, are optional.

It may still be worthwhile to collect forensic evidence even if you are uncertain about pursuing the case criminally. The collected evidence can be stored for several months to a year or more (depending on your local storage policy). This gives you time to decide how you would like the case to proceed with the knowledge that the forensic evidence is available for testing if needed.