First Response to Children with Disabilities

Setting the Stage

First response to children with disabilities sets the stage for the entire investigation.

Do everything you can to create a sense of immediate safety for the child.

  • Reduce noise. Children may be re-traumatized by loud voices, radios, beepers, phones, and other noises.
  • If needed, remove the child from the presence of an uncontrolled parent or caregiver as soon as possible.
  • Wait to ask detailed questions until the child can be interviewed in a neutral setting.
  • Explain what is going on and what will happen next in age-appropriate ways.
  • Ask the child what they are worried about and what might make them feel less worried and more safe. Try to follow through as much as possible.
  • Answer any questions the child may have.

Do not proceed with the field interview if the child seems too distraught or distracted; does not have the language development to communicate; or lacks necessary communication aides, such as an interpreter, communication board, or device.

(Adapted in part from Office for Victims of Crime; Shelton; & Chadwick Center for Children and Families.)

Family and Caregivers

  • Treat the parent or caregiver with respect, even if the person is angry and upset.
  • If the non-abusing parent is not hostile, ask them to reassure the child that they are safe and that the child advocates and investigators are there to help.
  • Family members and caregivers may try to get in the way of  your interactions with the child. If this continues, you may have to delay talking to the child until they are in a neutral setting, such as the hospital, police station, or children’s shelter. Do not use family members to interpret for children who are Deaf or speak another language.
  • If the child lives in a group home or residential setting, staff may also interfere with your attempts to communicate with the child. Let the staff know that direct communication between you and the child is in the child’s best interest. If necessary, speak to a supervisor.
  • In further interactions, limit conversations with care providers and other household members to getting information about the crime and possible accommodations for the child.

(Adapted from Office for Victims of Crime.)

If the Child Has to be Removed From the Home

  • When possible, ask the non-abusive parent what you can do to make their child feel more safe in a new or foster care setting.
  • Ask basic questions about how the child best communicates, how the disability affects the child’s daily functioning, disability-related routines, and about adaptive aids or tips for working with the child when they are distressed.
  • Ask about bedtime and morning routines, food preferences, allergies, favorite movies or TV shows, and other rituals.
  • If possible, ask the child what they want to take with them.

(Adapted from Chadwick Center for Children and Families.)