How the Legal System Responds to Abuse

The legal system can be confusing and frightening to children and families. Part of this confusion stems from the fact that 2 different "legal systems" can be working on the same case at the same time. These 2 systems are the "criminal" system and the "civil" system. In addition, there are 3 different court systems that can work on child abuse cases: Criminal, Juvenile, and Domestic Relations Court. These courts may work on the same case at the same time, but they have different purposes.

Criminal Court
The Criminal Court is concerned primarily with guilt or innocence of the accused when they are over the age of 18. This court often uses a trial to decide on the suspect's guilt or innocence. The criminal trial focuses on issues such as:
  • Is there evidence to prove the child was abused?
  • What illegal acts occurred?
  • Was there a confession?
  • If proven guilty, what punishment should the offender receive?
Domestic Relations Court
The Domestic Relations Court is concerned primarily with the safety of the child and focuses on issues like custody, supervised visitation, and counseling. A number of different court hearings can be held to decide these issues. The decisions in the civil system do not depend on whether the criminal system finds guilt or not.

Juvenile Court Divisions

Juvenile Court has a Delinquency Division and a Dependency Division. The delinquency division deals with cases of juvenile offenders under the age of 18. The Dependency Division makes decisions on the safety and custody needs of children. The Dependency Division also makes decisions on appropriate services for parents and children.