How to navigate the legal system after child abuse

Karen Kay Imagawa, MD, shares advice for parents on how to navigate the legal system after your child has been abused or molested
Navigating The Legal System After A Child Abuse
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How to navigate the legal system after child abuse

Once a case of child abuse has been reported, there's a lot of navigating in the legal system regarding this. And it often can be confusing and adding to the stress for a family and for a child. There are two main court systems that are involved when the child abuse case has been reported. One of them is dependency court. The other is criminal court. With dependency court, dependency court is basically child protective services. So, child protective services will investigate those cases where the alleged perpetrator is the primary caretaker. So, it's the mother, the father, the grandparent, someone who is primarily taking care of that child. So, in dependency court they are looking out for the best interests of the child. Had to keep that child protected. So, child protective services is represented by county council. And, they present their cases to why they feel this is child abuse, and then everybody else has their own attorney. So, mom will have his own attorney, dad will have his own attorney. The minor will have their own attorney, the siblings will have their own attorney. And, everyone will get to present and cross examine the witnesses. The decision is made by a judge or a referee or commission, depending on their qualifications. The decision is made by that one person. And, it's based on: How do we protect the child? What's in the best interest of the child? The burden of proof in dependency court is 51%. It's more likely mom did it. It's more likely boyfriend did it, but mom knew about it. It's more likely boyfriend did it, but mom didn't knew about it. And, they want to make sure that the child is protected. So dependency court and child protective services is involved with: Where's that child going to live? Are they going to stay in the home? Is it safe to be at home? Are they going to go live with a relative? Are they going to go in a non-relative placement? So, it's about protection. It's not particularly suppose to be a punitive court, and that they want to bring family reunification. They want families to be reunited as much as possible. On the other hand, there's criminal court. Criminal court is where law enforcement and district attorney is involved. And, law enforcement is basically investigating all cases. Not just those cases where the alleged perpetrator is a primary caretaker, but anyone. If it's John Doe on the street that molests the child, law enforcement is going to investigate all of them. So, low enforcement presents their case, the district attorney presents their case. And, initially, there may be a preliminary trial to see is there enough evidence to go to a jury trial. So, the judge makes the decision whether or not there is enough evidence to go to a jury trial. And then it's a jury trial with 12 members of your peers. The burden of proof in criminal court is beyond the reasonable doubt. So, it's much more strengthened, because it is the punitive court. It's: Who's the bad guy and who's going to go to jail? They also have court advocates for the child that will actually be with the child. Be their buddy in court, take them to the court and get them prepared for what's going to happen. And so, there are systems and resources out there for families and for children. But, it can be a complicated system. And, often times, you can also ask the child abuse expert who's doing their evaluation. Your pediatrician may also be aware of some of this court and legal issues, as well.

Karen Kay Imagawa, MD, shares advice for parents on how to navigate the legal system after your child has been abused or molested


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Karen Kay Imagawa, MD

Director of the Audrey Hepburn CARES Center, Children's Hospital Los Angeles

Karen Kay Imagawa, MD: Director, Audrey Hepburn CARES Center, Director, Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics Program, Division of General Pediatrics; Children's Hospital Los Angeles. Karen Kay Imagawa, MD, is also the Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at USC’s Keck School of Medicine and is a full-time attending within the Department of Pediatrics, Division of General Pediatrics, at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA). She received her medical degree at the University of California, Los Angeles, and is board certified in General Pediatrics, Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics, and Child Abuse Pediatrics.  Dr. Imagawa has made significant contributions to program development at CHLA: She is currently the Director of the Joint General Pediatrics – USC University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD) Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics Program ,expanding the program to its current position with the largest number of board-certified developmental-behavioral pediatricians (7) in a Southern California program, and was integral in establishing the ACGME accredited Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics Fellowship program at CHLA . Dr. Imagawa is also one of the founders and the Director of the Audrey Hepburn CARES Center at CHLA, a multifaceted interdisciplinary child protection center involving evaluation, treatment, prevention, education and research in the field of child maltreatment.  Dr. Imagawa is a court appointed expert (730 paneled expert in both Criminal and Dependency Court) in the field of child abuse, and was actively involved in the development of the Foster Care Hub at CHLA, one of seven designated Hubs in Los Angeles County that were initially established to provide forensic, medical, and mental health screenings for newly detained children entering the foster care system.  She previously served on the advisory group for The California Medical Training Centers formulating standardized training in child abuse, and collaborated on a task force to develop standards at the state level for mental health care for child victims of trauma. She is a medical consultant for the Inter-agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect (ICAN – the official county agency which coordinates the development of services for the prevention, identification and treatment of child abuse and neglect), having participated in various medical task forces establishing protocols and best practice standards for the evaluation and treatment of suspected victims of child abuse, included those with developmental disabilities. Dr. Imagawa’s strength as a clinical educator is also seen in her dedication to education and training. She has been invited to participate in numerous speaking engagements, as well as requests from the media and entertainment industry, involving a variety of topics in the fields of child abuse and/or developmental-behavioral pediatrics. 

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