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Preventing Child Abuse in Organizations and Youth Programs

April 26, 2013

There are some advantages to having an adult child (The primary disadvantage is that I really feel old now that he’s an adult!). One of the advantages is that I no longer have to worry about him suffering child abuse while in the care of others. We were fortunate that the adults in his life at school, after-care, summer camps, art classes, sports and religious school were talented and caring.

However, as we all know this is not always the case. Every time I hear a story of a teacher, coach, religious leader or other adult who abuses a child when they are supposed to be helping them, I cringe. As these stories of betrayed trust come out, I am sad that our world feels less safe.

But, one good thing has come out of the attention these situations bring. Organizations are working hard to make their activities and programs safe for kids. Background checks have long been required for people interacting with children, but given that so much abuse goes unreported, background checks aren’t enough anymore. There are now clear guidelines for youth-serving organizations that really can increase child safety.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has a guidebook called “Preventing Child Sexual Abuse Within Youth Serving Organizations: Getting Started on Policies and Procedures”. This helpful guide includes information on how organizations can screen and train employees to reduce the risk of abuse occurring, gives healthy guidelines for adult/child interactions and even addresses how to set up physical environments that allow good visual supervision of participants and volunteers.

One of the most important suggestions in the publication is that every organization needs to face the risk of inappropriate encounters and then actively plan to prevent them. Organizations have repeatedly made the mistake of believing, “It can’t happen here”. The truth is that inappropriate contact can happen anywhere. And it has happened in every type of setting.

Another valuable suggestion is for organizations to broaden the definition of inappropriate contact.  It isn’t limited to sexual contact—adults can bully youth, youth can bully or assault each other, and programs can have unhealthy norms including everything from hazing to an acceptance of demeaning conversation or put-downs as a type of humor used in the group.

Some of my favorite suggestions from the CDC guide include:

  1.  Conduct in-person interviews with potential staff or volunteers that include questions that ask applicants what they would do in certain situations and that can be used to assess balance in the applicant’s life.  Asking “What would you do if you walked in the room and saw an adult standing close to a child in a way that made you uncomfortable?” gives an organization the opportunity to learn what the applicant thinks appropriate contact is, and also lets the applicant know that the organization is paying attention to this sort of situation. Asking an applicant what he or she does for relaxation, or what other activities they participate in, lets the organization know if the applicant is involved with other adults or only with youth.
  2. Consider an “open door” policy where offices and classrooms either have open doors or windows in the doors. Limit situations with one child and one volunteer or staff person. Lock storage closets and private offices so no one can slip into those spaces unnoticed.
  3. When training staff and volunteers, include very specific examples of contact that is considered appropriate or inappropriate by spelling out things like:  Appropriate contact includes praising a child or patting a child on the shoulder. Inappropriate contact includes telling jokes that degrade a group of people, or are risqué, or patting a child on the buttocks in sports (or anywhere else).
  4. Prohibit contact between program participants and staff/volunteers outside of the organization’s approved activities.
  5. Include the possibility of inappropriate peer contact in your organization’s prevention plan.  Limit situations that may make this more likely such as sending children to the restroom in pairs (send three children instead) or having no adult supervision in a locker room.  (If you don’t want one adult to supervise a locker room alone, have two adults do it.)
  6. Make sure outside landscaping does not allow for hiding places behind bushes or hedges.
  7. Educate yourself, your board, your staff and your volunteers that there is no obvious “offender type.” Offenders can exhibit intelligence, charm, caring, morality and many other positive traits. The presence of these traits doesn’t stop inappropriate behavior with kids.
  8. Inform the families you serve of your organization’s commitment to providing a safe, positive, and helpful environment. Invite them to monitor the environment with you by openly discussing concerns and asking questions.
Children and youth need to participate in sports, the arts and faith activities. They have to go to school. They need to form relationships with adults other than their parents. These activities often increase a child’s self-esteem which is a characteristic that makes children less vulnerable to abuse!

I sometimes complain that we hear more bad news than good news in the world, but we need to face risk and actively help the organizations we care about face it as well. Active and open child abuse prevention belongs in every setting to help keep our kids safe.