The Fearful Flip Side of Child Protection

Print More

It was a youth worker’s nightmare.

As staff member Johnny Dove of the New Life Children’s Residential Treatment Center in Canyon Lake, Texas, was restraining an upset teenager one day last August, she smacked her head on a ledge. When she got up, they saw blood. Even though the 16-year-old said it was an accident, and a surveillance camera recording appeared to exonerate Dove, the injury had to be reported to state child protection authorities and local police. The center’s policy also dictated that Dove be suspended without pay pending the outcome of the investigation.

Two weeks later, Dove was cleared; he received back pay and returned to work. But the experience took an emotional toll. “There were thoughts hanging over you the entire two weeks,” says Dove, 25, who is married with two children. Should he look for other work? Should he hire a lawyer? How would he provide for his family?

“To know that I could not only lose my career, but to know my freedom could be at risk … It’s been a real, real tough couple of months.”

He owes his ordeal to a phenomenon that has been building for 20 years, as stories of abuse by people working with kids – from treatment staff and juvenile detention guards to coaches and youth ministers – have drawn national attention, sparked countless lawsuits and prompted youth agencies to adopt tough child protection procedures.

But as more agencies take a hard line at the first suggestion that a youth worker has done something inappropriate, little attention has been paid to the flip side of this phenomenon: Many workers feel that their careers and their reputations are more vulnerable than ever to one inadvertent injury or one claim by an angry kid.

The Washington-based Center for Child Protection and Family Support, in a 1998 report on preventing abuse in child and youth care settings, noted that providers were concerned with “increasing staff fears of being unjustly accused of abuse.” A guide called, “Recruiting Male Volunteers,” published in 1999 by the Corporation for National Service, said 7 percent of the volunteers and volunteer coordinators that were interviewed “suggested that some men are reluctant to volunteer around children because they are concerned about false allegations of child abuse or being perceived as ‘predators.’ ”

“Allegations can be made that have no basis, and can rip someone’s life apart,” says Earl Dunlap, executive director of the National Juvenile Detention Association.

While it is impossible to quantify the problem, serious false accusations that prompt an investigation and a worker’s suspension appear to be rare.

Nationally, there are an estimated 2 million reports of abuse and neglect each year, involving about 4 million children, according to a 2002 report by the U.S. Administration for Children and Families. About 60 percent of the time, officials could not substantiate that abuse took place or that any children were at risk.

What has instilled a constant, back-of-the-mind fear in youth workers is seeing how an accidental injury or an abuse claim can launch multi-agency investigations that often treat the staffer as guilty unless proven otherwise.

“I have seen a shift, where the organizations are getting much more hard-line about it” than they were years ago, says Les Nichols, vice president of club safety and design for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, which has 3,400 clubs serving more than 4 million youth.

Agency administrators hope the steps they’ve taken to protect children from abuse will also protect workers from false accusations: training and rules to cut down on opportunities for abuse, installation of surveillance cameras in facilities, and clearer guidelines on how to respond to abuse allegations.

Automatic Suspensions

Few events can shake an agency like an abuse allegation, whether it’s true or not. At the 25-bed Allencrest Juvenile Detention Center in Beaver, Pa., some staff still recall the turmoil in 1997 when, in separate incidents, two workers were accused of sexual contact with teen residents.

The first worker, a part-timer, was accused of having sexual intercourse with a 14-year-old girl. The charges were dropped after the girl refused to testify, but the employee resigned after being arrested on drug charges.

Then, a girl accused another worker of fondling her in a public area of the facility. Police charged the man with indecent assault, corruption of minors and harassment.

Dennis Harley, a supervisor at Allencrest, says the accusation came after the girl refused to get off the phone when her five-minute allotment ended. The worker took the phone from her, hung it up and said he would put her on restrictions for the violation.

“It made her angry, and she made an allegation that he’d fondled her,” Harley says.

The worker was acquitted more than nine months later, after a state investigation and a trial, for which he had to hire an attorney.

“She put the guy through all that, and it took them 10 minutes in court to find him not guilty,” Harley recalls. The worker, who was moved to another area during the investigation but kept on the payroll, was later reinstated and is still at Allencrest. He was paid for his lost wages.

There was a time when agency administrators would weigh such accusations by a youth against the staffer’s reputation. But the 1980s ignited a string of abuse allegations against organizations serving youth – most notably the McMartin preschool scandal in California – that continues today, as witnessed by the Catholic Church abuse scandal. In many of those incidents, agency leaders initially believed the adults rather than the youths. That was often a mistake, and compounded the harm to the youths as well as the legal liability and the negative media coverage for the organization.

Now the pendulum has swung the other way. Consider this item from Child Abuse Prevention Training for Front-Line Staff, which the YMCA of the USA offers to its more than 2,400 YMCA’s for their staff members to sign: “In the event the reported incident involves a program volunteer, employed staff, or YMCA member, the executive director will immediately, without exception, suspend the volunteer or staff person from the YMCA until an investigation is complete.” The YMCA says its programs serve about 9 million youth each year.

Such polices are common among youth agencies. One lesson from lawsuits by child abuse victims over the past two decades is that not following agency policy makes the agency more liable to large damage awards. “This is a thing we have really been working on over the years – stricter enforcement of their own internal policies,” says Nichols at the BGCA.

That’s regardless of who the worker is. “We’ve seen it happen where people are in total denial” that a certain worker could be guilty, says Barbara Taylor, senior consultant for program development at the YMCA. “You don’t know that.”

But policies can’t cover every incident. Does a claim that a worker held a kid’s wrist too tight warrant a suspension and a report to local government investigators? Should administrators ignore facts that make an accusation sound dubious?

“If you have a child who’s outright lied time and time again, and the staff person was really not in a position for anything like this to happen – that would be a tough call,” Taylor says. Administrators still have to exercise judgment.

Last year, people in Roanoke, Va., learned just how devastating an allegation can be. A student accused middle and high school teacher Ronald L. Mayfield Jr., 55, of hitting him and grabbing him by the chin. Two weeks later, unaware that the investigations had cleared him the day before, Mayfield jumped off a bridge to his death.

The school district has revised its policies to require staying in better contact with teachers who are put on administrative leave.

Risky Venues

As a nurse who runs health services at Allencrest, Dawn Thibodeau sees plenty of youth who are injured, as well as some who contrive injuries or tales about how actual injuries occurred. “If you have seasoned kids, then they’re feeding ideas to the new kids: ‘If you do this, then child welfare comes in,’ ” she says. “A lot of time, it’s retaliatory” against a staffer.

“I see a lot of kids who rub their necks real hard and then say, ‘The staff tried to choke me,’ ” says Thibodeau. She photographs the injury, gets written statements, reports it to a supervisor, documents it on the medical chart and files an incident report.

“Usually it’s resolved right away,” she says of false accusations, either by the child recanting or by other residents saying they overheard the youth’s plan to make a false charge.

While accusations crop up in all settings, they seem most likely to arise in residential facilities, where there are around-the-clock opportunities for youth and staff interaction, and where the youth are more likely to be severely troubled.

The most common scenario for a false abuse report, says Harley at Allencrest, comes when staff members intervene in fights between the teens. “It becomes difficult when you have big kids, or two or three kids, throwing punches and you have to go in to restore order, when you’ve also got 13 to 14 others kids on the floor you have to supervise,” he says.

“When you’ve got a child who’s been placed in a program, who needs help, they’re very angry, and they can be highly manipulative,” says Dore Frances, educational consultant and child rights advocate for Horizon Family Solutions in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, which helps families find programs for their at-risk or learning-disabled children.

“It comes down to the responsibility of the program to provide a safety network to make sure that those allegations can be proven unfounded,” she says.

For some agencies, that means a network of cameras.

Seeing Is Believing

At the New Life center, run by Lutheran Social Services (LSS), Dove was cleared with the help of a digital camera surveillance system. The system lets executive directors look in on their facilities at four LSS centers in Texas and one in Louisiana. Most centers have about 16 cameras in common areas, such as hallways, recreation rooms and cafeterias. The installation cost $50,000 per center, says Scott Lundy, associate vice president of residential services for LSS.

Lundy says the cameras, along with staff training, contributed to a 40 to 50 percent decrease in reports against his staff over the past four years. That’s not to say the decline shows how often youths used to make up stories. The cameras make youth and staffers more reluctant to get into actual physical confrontations. “The kids know what they are, and the staff knows what they are,” notes Allencrest Director Robert Rose.

For instance, cameras were installed three years ago at the 16-bed Scott County Juvenile Detention Center in Davenport, Iowa. “Now we can go months without a physical altercation,” says Director Scott Hobart.

He says other detention center directors warned that his staff would object to the “Big Brother” intrusion. But other than an occasional technical glitch, he says, “there has not been a down side.”

“Initially, there was a little feeling of apprehension, but now it’s just about unanimous support. It was really kind of a freeing thing” for staff to know a video could back them up if an accusation were made, Hobart says.

Harley at Allencrest recalls an incident in which a staff member restrained a teen resident by holding his hands behind his back. The teen broke free, lunged forward and hit his eye against a wall. He accused the staff member of pushing him. Harley says the video quickly cleared the worker.

But cameras aren’t for everyone. For one thing, they’re expensive. “One of the first reactions people have is they want to put in cameras,” says Nichols of the BGCA. “I usually challenge them not to do that,” because “they have to be sufficient in number, and you have to have someone to monitor them.”

At the YMCA, Taylor is similarly cautious. “You cannot put cameras everywhere,” she says. She notes that some systems only snap images every 15 seconds or so, limiting their usefulness in determining whether a staff member touched someone inappropriately.

Nichols and Taylor are among those who see staff training as the best means for reducing altercations and false accusations. Training Is Preventing

“When you do the necessary things to prevent abuse from happening, you’re also protecting the staff member or volunteer from false accusations,” says John Patterson, senior program director for the Washington-based Nonprofit Risk Management Institute.

Patterson would know; he’s helped several major youth-serving organizations, including the YMCA and the Boy Scouts of America, develop child protection procedures. Such procedures usually involve several key elements: training to prevent physical altercations between staff and youth, including de-escalation strategies; training on safe restraint procedures; and guidelines to cut down on opportunities for inappropriate contact, such as prohibiting being alone with youth or suggesting when and how it’s OK to touch them at all. (The LSS says hugs must be from the side, Lundy says.)

The BSA’s “Guide to Safe Scouting” notes that policies such as banning one-on-one activities with youth “are primarily for the protection of our youth members; however, they also serve to protect our adult leaders from false accusations of abuse.” Such policies also include teaching front-line staff and administrators how to react when a youth reports that another staff member assaulted him or her. The YMCA guidelines, for instance, call for immediately informing the program director, making mandatory reports to government agencies that investigate child abuse allegations, and suspending the staff member or volunteer.

All this talk about reporting abuse and the right way to hug a child (if ever) creates an unfortunate backlash: It makes innocent people nervous.

At training sessions held for youth workers at Catholic dioceses over the past two years, workers have routinely expressed fears about unwittingly crossing a boundary and being accused of abuse. Psychologist Chris Thurber sees that fear when he conducts training for youth camps affiliated with the American Camp Association. “A lot of camp counselors will say, ‘Well, jeez, can we do anything with these kids?’ ” he says. “ ‘Are we going to be accused of child abuse if we pat somebody on the head?’ ” Thurber relates the story of a boy who wrote to his parents that his camp counselor “is touching my rear end.” The boy’s parents called a camp official, who talked to the counselor – who had been giving kids rides on his shoulders, and putting his hands on their lower backs or rear ends to stabilize them.

“In most of the cases” of alleged inappropriate touching, Thurber says, “it’s a misunderstanding or someone’s slight misjudgment. … There are a half-dozen simple guidelines that if you follow, you’ll be totally fine.” Steve Twedt can be reached at

Dennis Harley, Supervisor Allencrest Juvenile Detention Center Beaver, Pa. (724) 775-5450
Scott Lundy, Associate Vice President Lutheran Social Services Austin, Texas (800) 938-5777
Les Nichols, Vice President Club Safety and Design Boys & Girlsa Clubs of America Atlanta, Ga. (404) 487-5700
Barbara Taylor Senior Consultant for Program Development YMCA of the USA Chicago, Ill. (312) 977-0031
“Recruiting Male Volunteers: A Guide Based on Exploratory Research” Corporation for National and Community Service Washington, D.C. (202) 606-5000