Overcoming Volunteers’ Reluctance to Report Abuse

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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.

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 . . . 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 seminar.

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

Tools and Training

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.

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 sent to supervisors and other designated staff members at the youth-serving agency. 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, http://www.wallawallafriends.org.


  • Gary Kosman

    Thanks for publishing this article about our work at America Learns. To be clear, the instant child safety notification system we created is _not_ intended to be the main way that volunteers report their concerns to supervisors. It’s only there for volunteers who are uncomfortable making direct reports to their supervisors.

    Further, as discussed in the webinars we recently held on this topic and in my conversations with Youthtoday before this article was published, we _completely_ agree with Jovanna Centre at Friends of Walla Walla about addressing some volunteers’ shock of poor families’ living conditions. One of the unintended consequences of our child safety and instant notification system is that some volunteers have used it out of this “shock.” Those volunteers’ programs, who were sometimes equally surprised by their volunteers’ concerns, have then revamped their pre-service trainings to give their volunteers a much more thorough understanding of the social settings in which they’ll be serving. As you can imagine, those programs then end up much stronger on the whole. Also as you can imagine, we provide the organizations we serve with guidance on how to train their volunteers on this feature (we don’t just plop it right on the online reflection logs and progress reports), and we encourage all of the organizations we serve to do what they can to introduce volunteers to the communities in which they’re serving before the volunteers begin their service. To be fair, we didn’t take these steps until we saw that some volunteers were using this feature out of Centre’s “shock” point.

    Further, you have to look at and accept reality. We now know that some volunteers are not comfortable making in-person or paper-based reports in which they’re prompted to detail concerns. Organizations we serve have told us on five occasions that the web-based instant notification feature has helped children get out of harm’s way. Even if our system had only helped one child (and never helped another child ever again), like it or not, it has helped children by creating a space where volunteers finally felt safe reporting their concerns. If we know that the traditional forms of checking in do not always feel safe for volunteers, we need to explore other media and processes that we can employ to prompt volunteers to share their concerns as soon as they have them. With the proper pre-service and ongoing training, organizations that invest in our services do not run into the issues Centre raised in your interviews with her.
    You can view one of the recent webinars that discuss these issues thoroughly at http://americalearns.net/webinars.htm or contact me directly (gary@americalearns.net / 310-689-0542).