With a life-threatening peanut allergy, Mason Machiewicz’s mom, Alissa, keeps a strict peanut-free home. Having just completed her search for a private kindergarten program for Mason in the fall, Alissa paid close attention to programs’ food safety policies and practices. Organizations that did not have emergency allergy plans posted in classrooms, detailed staff policies for identifying and handling food allergies, staff training on the signs of an allergic reaction and a written food-allergy policy that is shared with parents were not given serious consideration, she said. Educational enrichment was obviously an important deciding factor, she added, but her son’s safety was her first priority.
Educational and enrichment programs “are essential to keep kids safe, engage children in enriching activities, and give peace of mind to moms and dads during the out-of-school hours,” according to the After School Alliance, which notes that 15.1 million U.S. school-aged children are unattended after school and could use after-school programming. Yet, to maintain and grow a successful educational or enrichment program requires not only an engaging and effective activity but also sound policies and procedures that identify and limit risks and potential liabilities. Risk management is an area organizations can’t afford to ignore.
The biggest risk management issue facing youth-serving programs today is participant safety, said Melanie Lockwood Herman, executive director of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center, a national nonprofit that helps other nonprofits manage risk through training, resources and technical assistance.
Inaccurate staffing and background checks are related key focus areas, said Dan Bier, underwriting manager for nonprofits at the Philadelphia Insurance Company.
To identify risk, programs should focus on the “four Ps of youth protection,” said Herman. She described these as:
Premises: look at the physical plant of the facility in which the program is housed and what risks, if any, it may pose to staff and participants.
Programs: review what programs are offered, and how they should and can be staffed to limit risk.
Personnel: identify who you need to bring in, whether paid staff or volunteers, and assess your screening and supervision policies and procedures.
Participants: identify and understand the special needs or concerns of the program’s participants and their developmental stages.
“Almost any best practice in youth protection and risk can be linked to one of these four categories,” she said. (See sidebar.)
Developing Policies and Procedures
Having strong policies is one of the most important ways organizations can reduce risks, agreed Bier and Herman. The details of a good policy or procedure manual will depend on the particulars of the program, said Bier, who emphasized that “one size will not fit all” (see Resources).
Herman urged youth-serving programs to consider several general rules when creating or reviewing their policies:
- The program’s expectations and “dos and don’ts” should be clearly outlined.
- All written policies should be in the plainest terms possible and understandable at first glance. If they are not easy to read and understand, said Herman, they may not be followed properly or at all.
- The policy must include accountability measures for when the policy is broken by staff or volunteers.
The policy should be customized to speak to the focus of the program. Ensuring youth safety also requires “active supervision” of youth participants, said Amy Gantz, chief operating officer of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington. Staff should be “hearing what’s going on, seeing what’s going on and not sitting in one place,” said Gantz, who also oversees the Center’s kindergarten through eighth grade after-school program.
Written policies should ensure that staff members are trained on abuse identification and prevention, she added. Whether the abuse is peer-to-peer, caregiver-to-child or staff-to-child, policies should clearly state what staff must do in these situations and offer training on how to identify the physical and emotional signs of abuse, she said. (See CHILD ABUSE)
The Center’s after-school program has between 50 and 65 kids enrolled each year, said Gantz. Offering a range of activities that occur all over the Center, one of the biggest risks the program faces, said Gantz, is that, as part of a larger community center, people are entering the building daily for various events or programs. To increase safety for after-school program participants, the Center’s policies require that:
- Youth participants are never left unattended
- Young people go to the bathroom in groups of three or are accompanied by a staff person
- Two staff members are with a class at all times
- Staff request photo identification of any new adult picking up a young person
Common Mistakes and Misconceptions
“The general public tends to believe that if you don’t have a criminal history you are going to act appropriately with a child,” said the Risk Management Center’s Herman. But this is a big misperception and can lull programs into a false sense of security, she warned. In Herman’s experience, “the vast majority of cases involving nonprofit employees or volunteers who engage in inappropriate contact with a child involve a perpetrator with no prior criminal history.”
Organizations emphasize applicant screening, and background and reference checks, Herman said, but staff oversight procedures aren’t as strong. Programs should create an environment where staff members understand that they must step forward when they see something inappropriate, and there are clear steps articulated on how to do that, said Herman.
Another big misconception is that if an organization adopts a policy, it will be followed to the letter, said Herman. In some instances the policy may be hard to understand or staff and volunteers disagree or even resent the policy, said Herman. This is where training and giving staff and volunteers an opportunity to question and raise concerns about the policy is critical, she added.
“Whenever kids are involved, the degree of care is always higher,” said Bier. However, maintaining that high degree of care doesn’t mean programs are avoiding certain activities, according to Gantz and Herman. Rarely do after-school or youth-serving programs not do something because of their concern over risk exposure, said Herman. Instead, they put safety precautions in place and/or modify original activity proposals, said Gantz.
Whether it is a rock climbing wall, trampoline or some other programmatic adventure, organizations shouldn’t be naïve, said Herman. Instead, they must think through what could go wrong, have the procedures in place to limit risk and respond in case of an emergency, she said.
For more information, see Insurance Shopping: Questions and Considerations and Opening School Facilities to Private Youth Programs — A Legal Analysis.
Jessica R. Kendall, JD, is co-founder of Child & Family Policy Associates, a Maryland-based consulting firm, and has authored several books, articles and practice guides on child protection and juvenile justice issues.