Protect the Child: A How-to Guide

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Accept that someone you work with could molest a child. Develop written rules and make sure everyone sticks to them. If a child is abused, counsel rather than fight with the family.

These are among the common guidelines of child protection plans in youth-serving organizations – and they illustrate a significant change not just in rules, but in a way of thinking.

The youth field has come a long way in recent years in confronting sexual misconduct among adults and youth in their programs. “More programs are putting into place really strong prevention steps,” said Sarah Kremer, who leads mentor screening and youth safety training as program director of the Mentoring Institute.

“Anybody who does capacity building and training in mentoring is spending a lot of time on screening and child protection,” says David Shapiro, CEO of MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership. 

Policies and procedures vary greatly among agencies, depending on such factors as the type and intensity of interaction between youths and adults. Regardless of the specific rules in place, here are some of the core elements of strong child protection systems, as preached by leaders in the field:

  • Awareness: Recognize “that almost anything ‘could happen here,’ ” in your organization, said Melanie Herman, executive director of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center.
  • Screening: Criminal background checks for prospective staff and even volunteers are routine now at many organizations, thanks in part to state laws that make such checks easier and less expensive than before. And where organizations once said they didn’t have time to make references calls on volunteers, more of them now make the time. Risk consultants stress that this is just a first step, not a guarantee that someone will not offend.
  • Barriers to abuse: By and large, organizations have more detailed policies than ever to govern adult interactions with youth, such as barring staff from giving gifts to kids in the program and limiting physical contact, like roughhousing. Equally important is that staffers be repeatedly trained on the policies, the reasons behind them, and the importance of enforcing them – all of which have long been weak points. Kremer, of the Mentoring Institute, said it was common in child protection workshops years ago to find that “if there were procedures in place, they [staff] may not have been aware of them.” The Nonprofit Risk Management Center stresses, “Train, coach, remind and explain.”
  • Recognize danger: This requires a “continually evolving awareness of the signs of abuse or misconduct,” Herman said. Caleb Asbridge, senior associate for juvenile services at The Moss Group, which conducts trainings in juvenile detention facilities, said staff need to “recognize the signs of things, like grooming” someone for a potential sexual relationship.
  • Grooming can range from favoritism to excessive friendliness to intimidation. Some organizations, like the Boy Scouts of America, offer materials to educate young people and their families about recognizing such signs as well.
  • Ease of reporting: Everyone needs to know the reporting options and feel comfortable raising concerns to their superiors. For young people, Asbridge said, “There should be multiple reporting mechanisms. A kid shouldn’t just have one way of reporting: a hotline, a grievance process, go to a counselor, talk to your lawyer.”
  • Parental awareness: “Parents should be coached on the rules of the program, encouraged to see your programs in action, and invited to raise concerns,” Herman said. “Parents should be told (and reminded) about the locations where activities are held, and the times/days of official programs.”
  • Sensitivity to victims: In 1992, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted guidelines for responding to complaints of abuse. Among them: “Reach out to the victims and their families and communicate sincere commitment to their spiritual and emotional well-being.”

More agencies have adopted policies and protocol in advance so that staff are trained on how to respond to concerns and reports of alleged abuse.

What’s available?

To develop policies and procedures built around these principles, a growing number of child protection training products are available. Some resources include:

While more materials are available, David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes against Children Research Center, sees “a big demarcation between the big, deep-pocket” national groups and the “vast majority of youth-serving organizations, which are pretty small scale. … The church youth groups and local athletic groups, they don’t have the resources” to develop detailed plans and carry out the training.

Finkelhor also lamented that “there’s been very little research on what’s really effective.

“There’s a need for that. Many of the organizations have a hard time figuring out where to turn.” He’d like to see a national clearinghouse to help guide service providers.