Child protection from a criminal prosecution perspective

By Christine O. Corken*

Christine O'Connell Corken
Christine O. Corken

As a career prosecutor of 35+ years I am able to reflect on what I believe works and doesn’t work in the criminal justice system. For most of my career I have prosecuted sex offences, crimes against children and violent crimes in general. Some of the most painful and frustrating memories and experiences include generations of families coming through the system. As much as I believe in this system, it is clear there are serious flaws.

Approximately 25 years ago the County Attorney, local leaders of DHS and law enforcement met and decided to try to work together in the investigation and prosecution of child abuse cases. Dr. Kemp’s work on child abuse was just starting to come to our attention and the idea of a “constellation of symptoms” resonated with us. As a result, our first multi-disciplinary team (MDT) was created. It quickly became a success-fortunately we had almost none of the territorial issues that often prevail. We then have applied the process to several areas of prosecution; death review, elder abuse, child sex abuse, etc. It has been so successful that I can truly say it is not a team process anymore. It is institutionalized: “It’s how we do our job” is the motto used by the police in doing new officer training. One of the benefits our on-going relationship with Dr. Oral and her program at the University of Iowa is that we have been able to add her current research and medical model to the process. The medical input is particularly significant to the MDT model because it truly provides us with the kind of information that is A) necessary in the prosecution decision-making process and  B) beyond our basis of factual knowledge. It is not unusual to learn that what appears to be a suspicious injury has a reasonable medical explanation.

Because of our joint investigation and prosecution model we have been able to put together better cases. Any time that a decision is made based on as much information available from all sources, it will be a better decision. This process also allows us to coordinate decision making in the child dependency court with any related pending criminal child abuse cases. In a “perfect world” scenario, courts would have joint jurisdiction over both dependency and criminal cases pertaining to one family- One Family One Court. We are not there yet, but I do believe it is something to consider.

From a criminal prosecution perspective I have very strong views on our role in this process. I am pleased to see that there is a significant train of thought that moves us beyond the old philosophy of taking a case, convicting a bad guy, and moving on. Truly if the prosecutor’s job is to do “justice”, as we are sworn to do, it behooves us to carry that out, particularly with child victims. The benefit of the MDT system is that it allows us to get the big picture, not just a snapshot in time. With that big picture and the sharing of information, we are also able to make an outcome-based prosecutorial decision from the beginning. We truly can create a framework through our charging decisions that allows for the best outcome for the child, whether it is termination of parental rights/imprisonment of the offender or reunification/probation with services to allow the defendant to comply, therefore participating in the successful outcome. If the defendant fails to comply-that too will determine the outcome. The criminal justice system then creates the leverage for compliance. It provides access to appropriate treatment with the ability to provide supervision and hopes for compliance through the existence of possible criminal sanction.

As this MDT process is evolving, it is rapidly being considered as a framework for best practices in these kinds of cases. As a result of that, I have been involved in training other prosecutors in the value and practical realities of this process. The key is understanding the theory on the benefits of MDT investigations, while balancing those with the realities of each jurisdiction.

*Christine O’Connell Corken, JD, is First Assistant in the Dubuque County Attorney's Office. She will appear as part of the University of Iowa Provost’s Global Forum "Child Protection: A Global Responsibility" March 26-28, 2014.

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