Analysis of caretaker histories in abuse: Comparing initial histories with subsequent confessions

Emalee G. Flaherty*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


Objective: We hypothesize that perpetrators of abuse include elements of truth in their initial history and that an analysis of perpetrator confessions can teach professionals how to identify these initial truths. Methods: The information from a consecutive sample of perpetrators' confessions concerning 41 children hospitalized because of injuries caused by child abuse was reviewed. The details about the injuries contained in the confessions were compared with the details provided when these children initially presented for medical care. Information about the perpetrator's gender and relationship to the child, the victim's age and gender, type of injury, family risk factors, the trigger of the abusive event, the circumstances surrounding the event, and the type of trauma were collected. Results: A total of 45 perpetrators abused 41 children; 76% of perpetrators were male; 56% were the child's father; 34% were the child's mother. The perpetrators initially provided no explanation about how 68% of the children received an injury. In 91% of their initial histories, the perpetrators provided some element of truth about the circumstances or triggering event for the abuse. In 67% of confessions, crying was the circumstance that triggered the abuse. Mothers were more likely to describe the situation that triggered the abuse (85% of mothers versus 58% of fathers, p = ns), while fathers were more likely to describe accurately the circumstances surrounding the abuse (79% of fathers versus 62% of mothers, p = ns). Conclusions: Perpetrators of abuse provide initial truths in their presenting history. Child abuse professionals must take a careful history from all caretakers and "listen" for the "elements of truth." These truths are the child's behavior or circumstance that increased stress and triggered the abuse. Employing this method in a careful analysis of confessions can make a significant contribution to the capacity to identify child abuse. In addition, more information about the role of triggers may help to focus child abuse prevention strategies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)789-798
Number of pages10
JournalChild Abuse and Neglect
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 1 2006


  • Abusive head trauma
  • Perpetrator confessions
  • Physical child abuse

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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