Overcoming Volunteers’ Reluctance to Report Abuse


Beefed-up training and easy reporting systems are the keys.

Because of the close ties they develop with youths, volunteer mentors and tutors sometimes learn about disturbing aspects of those kids' lives, such as abuse and neglect. But even though many agencies require volunteers to report abuse suspicions, and some states mandate it, many volunteers are reluctant to do so or don't know how.

Gary Kosman, CEO of the America Learns Network, saw the problem during a 2003-04 pilot program, in which volunteers recorded their work through an online log provided by the network. Some agencies found that volunteers were reporting suspected abuse in random places in the online logs, such as in text boxes where they discussed the youths and their activities with them, rather than immediately alerting supervisors in person.

Because the notations were not always read immediately, investigations into possible abuse or neglect were delayed, putting the youths at continued risk.
That prompted Kosman to make some changes in America Learns' reporting system. In a recent seminar he conducted on the Web, Kosman urged other youth groups to do more to make sure volunteers have an easy way to recognize suspected abuse and immediately report it to their supervisors.

"If we're going to rely on volunteers to do the work of professionals, then those volunteers better have the competencies that they need to deliver on the promises we're making to these kids," he said during the late-summer Web seminar he organized.

America Learns is a California-based for-profit network that offers products aimed at improving and evaluating tutoring, mentoring and teacher education programs.

Kosman told seminar participants that better tools are needed to overcome the reluctance of volunteer mentors and tutors to report suspected abuse.

Required to Report?
According to "Mandatory Reporters of Child Abuse and Neglect," a report by the Child Welfare Information Gateway (a federal clearinghouse funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), 18 states require anyone to report suspected abuse and neglect to authorities. Sixteen of those states specify certain professionals who must report, generally including workers with regular responsibilities caring for youth.

Many agencies have mandatory reporting requirements for staff and volunteers. "For liability reasons, I would have your volunteers trained to be mandated reporters, regardless if it's required by state law," Jovanna Centre, community-based program coordinator at Friends of Children of Walla Walla, Wash., said in an online discussion.

But covering reporting requirements in pre-service training is not enough to overcome the reporting aversion of some volunteers, Kosman said. "We cannot assume that the mandatory reporting portion [of the pre-service training] is going to stick," he said in an interview.

Tools and Training
To make reporting easier for volunteers, America Learns updated its online reporting system to create a check-box system for volunteers to report abuse. When someone clicks on that box, an e-mail marked "urgent" is immediately sent to supervisors and other designated staff members at the youth-serving agency who can then investigate the report. The agencies can add the check box to the regular session logs, time logs or reporting forms that volunteers fill out.

Centre cautioned against relying too heavily on such a system. "I don't like the check-box tool," she said in an interview, because it might lead volunteers to think the problems they see are isolated and make them less likely to report suspicions.

Instead, Friends of Walla Walla, which operates school-based mentoring programs, uses ongoing training and frequent staff contacts with volunteers so they understand that if they see something amiss, they are probably not the only ones.

To overcome volunteer reporting reticence, Centre said the director of Washington's Division of Children and Family Services personally explains the abuse-complaint process in detail during training, which tends to put volunteers at ease. In addition, during monthly trainings on topics requested by volunteers, law enforcement officials sometimes talk about family substance abuse and domestic violence, she said.

Walla Walla uses a paper-based system for volunteers to report suspected abuse.

Because new volunteers are often shocked by the way some poor families live, Centre said, they need to be taught "what poverty looks like," so that they don't mistake all hard-scrabble living conditions for maltreatment.

Contact: America Learns (310) 689-0542, http://americalearns.net; Friends of Walla Walla (509) 527-4745, www.wallawallafriends.org.