‘Cold Feet’: the attrition of historic child sexual abuse cases reported to the police in a Northern Canadian Territory

Kate Chenier, Andie Shawyer, Becky Milne, Andy Williams

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Background: Most previous sexual assault attrition research has not differentiated between cases reported promptly and non-recent (or historic) reports, obscuring differences in attrition patterns. Historic child sexual abuse [HCSA] presents challenges for investigation and prosecution, including a lack of physical evidence, and complainant and witness memory issues.

Objective: To determine attrition patterns and analyze complainant reasons for withdrawal in HCSA cases in a region with a large Indigenous population.
Sample and Setting: This study examined 231 non-institutional HCSA complaints reported to the police in a Northern Canadian Territory.

Methods: Files were coded for a range of complainant, suspect, and offence variables. Reasons given by complainants were examined using thematic analysis. Logistic regression was performed, looking for factors connected with complainants’ likelihood of continuation.

Results: Overall attrition was 68.8%, with 159 cases not resulting in convictions. The leading cause of attrition, at 39.6%, (n = 63) was initiated by complainants, many of whom withdrew during the early stages of the investigative process. Thematic analysis of reasons for complainant withdrawal yielded two main themes (‘cold feet’ and ‘therapeutic’). Logistic regression results showed that three complainant-related variables were significant [p = .001] for complainant continuation: multi-complainant cases; previous disclosure by complainants; and complainant age (15-17 years old) at offence.

Conclusions: Results showed less attrition overall than for recent sexual assault, and highlighted the need to support HCSA complainants from early in the process, especially those reporting abuse for the first time. It was also found that some complainants were satisfied without going to court.
Original languageEnglish
Article number105206
Number of pages14
JournalChild Abuse & Neglect
Early online date13 Jul 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2021


  • Attrition
  • Historic child sexual abuse
  • Indigenous
  • Police investigation


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