Protecting Children from Sexual Abuse while Avoiding Liability
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Did it every cross your mind that 44 percent of sexual abuse victims are under the age of 18? As upsetting as it is to discuss, approximately two thirds of assaults are committed by someone known to the victim. Does your not for profit serve children? There’s a good chance it does.
Respected not for profits, faith-based organizations and other similar groups have found themselves in the middle of highly-publicized child sexual abuse scandals. Committed to the well-being and safety of children, most people would assume these entities would have plans in place to carefully ensure abuse never happens. Because of the unique characteristics of these organizations, namely the frequent, unsupervised interaction between children and a trusted adult, they’re at a high risk for sexual assault claims. Sexual-abuse allegations involving minors can have catastrophic consequences for your group or organization, even if they’re illegitimate.
You can take several steps to ensure your organization doesn’t have to undergo expensive and embarrassing lawsuits:
Carefully Screen Potential Staff
Require that all staff, whether paid or volunteer and regardless of their job description or length of service, consent in writing to a federal criminal background check. You should also search for all potential employees and volunteers in the National Sex Offenders Public Registry to check for any type of sex offender record.
In addition, you should require all applicants to provide a list of non-family references, complete with contact information. For those assuming leadership positions, ask to contact their previous employer and contact the references. Ask specific questions about the applicant’s reputation and character to evaluate whether he or she will present a risk to your organization.
Establish Supervision Guidelines
It’s important to set guidelines for staff and volunteer conduct for two reasons. First, it protects minors from ill-intentioned adults and makes the environment safer. Also, it protects employees and volunteers from potentially false allegations.
The most serious risks come when an adult has unsupervised contact with a minor, so these situations should be avoided whenever possible. Some suggestions for supervision guidelines include having two adults in the room with children, requiring two or more children to be present with one adult and having a supervisor or other staff member randomly check in on situations when an adult is with minors.
If your organization conducts overnight trips, the risks and potential liability increase exponentially. Be sure to provide an adequate ratio of adult volunteers to participants for security purposes, and never allow male and female participants to sleep in the same area. Sleeping areas should also have supervision guidelines, such as the two-adult and the two-child rules.
Provide Staff Education and Training
Organizations must allow employees and volunteers to understand the risk of sexual misconduct. If you educate employees and volunteers, they’re more likely to work with you to help reduce the liabilities and risks associated with dealing with youth and children.
Take the time upon hiring to educate staff on the policies and procedures. Be sure to emphasize that sexual misconduct training is not accusatory; rather, it’s for their protection. Also, it’s a good idea to re-train all staff annually as a reminder about the seriousness of the risk.
Take Allegations Seriously
Many organizations get into trouble because they failed to react quickly and appropriately. Stress that all staff – including volunteers – is required to report suspicions or evidence of abuse to senior staff members. Senior staff should forward these reports immediately to the proper law enforcement officials.
Take immediate action. Remove the employee or volunteer allegedly responsible from duty and don’t allow him or her to come in contact with minors until the investigation is complete. Keep detailed written records of the allegations and of any interviews with the victims or the alleged abusers. Re-visit your records and make sure they reflect the adequate background checks and reference checks you conducted.
The bottom line is your organization should work to avoid all circumstances that could lead to sexual misconduct or abuse of children. The nature of your organization makes this significantly more difficult, but with proper guidance and careful planning, you can protect the youth your mission serves, and yourself from liability.
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