Child Safety—It Takes a Community

January 20, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

My hometown is abuzz with concern about child sexual abuse.  A man who has taught second grade here for twelve years has been arrested in connection with a federal investigation of child pornography.  The prosecutors say they have found a video of him molesting a twelve year old girl.  The man is being held on $100,000 cash bond.  There have been no reports of abuse from among the children he has taught.

We often imagine that child abusers are strangers.  Yet most sexual abuse is perpetrated by people known to the victims.  This man grew up in town and is reportedly well liked and respected in the school where he taught.   A school or agency’s first line of defense against child sexual abuse is to require a criminal background check.  I know of one church that successfully screened someone out on this basis and another that could have avoided an incident had they screened (this was nearly 30 years ago).  In this week’s case, the teacher passed because he had no prior arrests.

That brings me to the most effective way to protect children:  good practices.  Good practices involve a whole school community and perhaps beyond in keeping children safe.  There need to be very clear definitions of appropriate ways to interact with children and definitions of where and when it might be appropriate to be alone with a child, if ever.  There also needs to be clear accountability.  Someone needs to be working with staff to know what they are doing and how.  This is someone who can approve or disapprove off-site activities or after school hours activities.

Good practice is not about being paranoid.  It is about being clear about proper behavior with children and good supervision.

As far as I can tell at this point, there is no question about the performance of the school system.  Many perpetrators have not had prior arrests.  Thus, good practice is essential to  keeping children safe and possibly preventing potential abusers from becoming perpetrators.

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Keeping Your Child Safe from Sexual Predators

November 15, 2011 by · 4 Comments 

This week we all have our minds on the disclosure of sexual abuse of young boys by a coach at Penn State.  I have been struck by the emphasis on who did what when rather than concern for the children who were abused.  For many of us it raises the frightening prospect that our children or children we know could be sexually abused.

I want to spend some time talking about how parents can find out whether a camp, preschool, Sunday School, or club is a safe place for their children.  The way I see it there are three lines of defense.

Educate Children

One is to educate children about good touch and bad touch, and to encourage them to tell an adult about anything that feels like a bad touch, no matter what someone else told them.  But children are young and can be influenced by a powerful adult, especially one they look up to.  Most perpetrators are known to their victims. So what else can parents do?

Criminal Background Checks

The next two parts of defense have to do with the policies of organizations that care for children.  First, find out whether they require criminal background checks on their staff.  If they have checks on some but not all staff, ask how they manage the unchecked staff’s contact with children.  Are they always supervised on site by someone who has been checked?  That would help.

However, most perpetrators never make it into the criminal justice system.  Doing background checks screens out people who have been convicted, and a policy of doing this conveys that the organization cares to prevent child sexual abuse, but this is not the whole story.  Again, most perpetrators are known to children.

Safe Practices

This brings me to the part of protecting children that I think is the most effective:  safe practices.  If you ask a program coordinator about their policies for child safety, they should be able to tell you about a number of practices.  How do they screen new staff?  You can ask about what kind of training staff have in preventing child sexual abuse.  There should be training for all staff.

Ask who the staff are accountable to.  Is there someone who knows what the programming is and can authorize it?

Ask if there is a written policy on protecting children from child sexual abuse in the program.  Is it posted?  Find out who is responsible to report abuse or neglect to the proper authorities.  Find out what the response plan is.

Ask whether staff are ever alone one on one with children.  Hopefully, they are not, but if they are, ask what the procedures are to provide supervision in those situations.  For instance, they might be in a room with a window in a door so that a supervisor can walk by at any time and see what is happening.

Ask what the practice is for taking children off site. Again, are staff ever alone one on one?

Ask whether parents are welcome to visit at any time.  If the answer is no, that is a concern.  While you wouldn’t want to disrupt a program, you would not want to feel that there is anything going on that you are not privy to.

Ask whether older children ever have care of younger children and whether they are one on one with younger children.

As you can see, the primary concern is whether there are opportunities for private, unsupervised contact between a child and staff or anyone with greater power (like a teenager).  In addition, you want all staff to be accountable to someone.

Some people might find that this type of program sounds a little paranoid, but once it is in place, it protects everyone—including staff.  Policies like these protect staff from false accusations.  In addition, there are people who might be perpetrators if given enough opportunity.  Being very clear about policies and practices can actually be helpful to prevent someone from becoming a perpetrator.

A fine resource on this topic is Reducing the Risk at www.reducingtherisk.com.    It is a comprehensive program and training manual written for religious institutions, but the basic lessons are the same for any organization that serves children.