Preventing Child Abuse

April 17, 2013

Beyond the Background Check

Jeff C. Heiser
Senior Assistant Director, Recreation
UC Davis

It’s spring time and chances are program coordinators and directors are gearing up for another great summer of recreation and athletic camps on colleges and universities across the country. By now, hiring is probably in full swing as directors are interviewing and finding top quality counselors and instructors for their programs.

An integral piece of the hiring and screening process involves ensuring that all staff histories are appropriate for working with youth; this most likely includes a fingerprint background check to eliminate those with criminal histories. Another commonly used screening tool is the National Sex Offender Public Website. This is a free service that lists all registered sex offenders across the country and can be searched by name or neighborhood.

Although fingerprint background checks and use of the National Sex Offender Public Website are important steps in discovering staff histories, they cannot be our sole source of information. Unfortunately, most child molesters do not have a criminal background record. If you are relying on a criminal background check to be your only defense against child abuse, you may not be doing everything you can to prevent child molesters and abusers from being hired, gaining access to your participants and causing irreversible damage to individuals, your program and University.

Fortunately, there are several other defense measures we can utilize as hiring managers to prevent child abusers from gaining access to our program. Procedures and strategies should be developed to guide hiring, training, supervision and response practices.
Hiring Strategies:
Beyond the background check, deterring potential abusers starts with making your program known for taking allegations of abuse seriously. Consider making a statement about child abuse in your job posting, that you take it seriously and fully investigate all allegations of abuse. There are forums on the internet where child abusers converse about which organizations have minimal screening procedures in order to gain quick and easy access to their targets. By simply mentioning your screening practices and stance on abuse, these may be a deterrent for potential abusers and drive away individuals with ill intent.

In addition to stating your position on abuse in job postings, it is imperative to look closely at all resumes and applications for any concerns. Inconsistent timelines on resumes and applications can often be these red flags. Short durations of time from one job to another, or not listing past employers as references are other examples of red flags. Targeting a specific demographic (age, gender) and only having experience with one particular age group can also be an area for concern. Although none of these red flags may exclude a candidate from the interview process on its own, they should be addressed at one point during the hiring process.

Training Strategies: Train Staff as Mandated Reporters
Since the unthinkable situation at Penn State, Mandated Reporting laws have changed across the United States to broaden the definition of a mandated reporter. A mandated reporter is an individual, who based on their employment or profession, is required by law to report suspected cases of child abuse to appropriate authorities. Many states have adopted language to specifically include coaches at the collegiate level and post-secondary staff and administrators. Check your state’s laws regarding child abuse reporting for specific information. Many states have online trainings available for staff to familiarize themselves with their responsibilities as a mandated reporter, what to do when you suspect abuse and how to report.

Developing Strong Policies and Procedures
Training should also include your comprehensive procedures and policies regarding conduct and interactions with youth. In general, potential abusers need two things: Access and Privacy. Your policies and procedures should be created to minimize access and privacy for all of your staff.

Guidelines around Physical Contact and Verbal Interactions should be made clear for staff. Programs should establish boundaries for appropriate physical contact, making it clear what is acceptable and what is not. The same goes for verbal interactions including appropriate conversations. Programs should have clearly defined guidelines for one-on-one interactions. Some programs may prohibit this all together and have a “rule of 3.” This means that at no time should a staff member be alone with a minor. Some programs may need to modify this to fit the needs of the program, such as meeting one-one-one with participants in a public place in full view of others. The important piece is to minimize the opportunity for staff to have private access with youth and to minimize the opportunity for youth to make allegations about the conduct of staff without another witness.

Programs should also have policies and procedures regarding non-program time. Some camps or programs fully prohibit staff from interacting with youth participants outside of camp. This includes babysitting and childcare. However, some programs that are more academically focused or mentoring based may need to modify this policy to meet programmatic needs; however guidelines should still be established. Group interactions should be encouraged and parents and guardians should always be informed.

When working in the generation of technology, guidelines need to be established that prevent inappropriate electronic communication. Again, some programs may prohibit connecting on social networking sites such as Facebook, email, cell phone or texting. However, not all programs can live with this policy. Guidelines should be created that include informing parents of the nature of appropriate electronic communication. For instance consider copying camp administrators or parents on all emails to youth participants and/or only communicating on social networking sites via group pages such as the camps Facebook page. Don’t let staff find the boundaries on their own. Develop boundaries that meet your program needs, train your staff and inform you parents and participants.

Supervision Strategies:
Supervision is also key to minimizing opportunities for private access. Develop supervision procedures for monitoring facilities, establishing bathroom routines, shower procedures, policies for night games and transportation in order to minimize access. As a rule, staff and youth participants should never shower nor use restrooms at the same time. Staff should be positioned to be within earshot of these facilities and be nearby to respond if anything arises. Night games pose their own unique set of circumstances. “Zone monitoring” should be utilized to ensure all areas are monitored as well as head counts at random intervals throughout the activity. Finally, transporting youth should always be in University approved vehicles and at no time should a staff member be transporting only one youth participant. Always remember the “Rule of 3.”

Staff Response Strategies:
Beyond mandated reporting for known or suspected child abuse, staff should know that abuse prevention is everyone’s responsibility. If there is a policy against private, one-on-one interactions and a staff member is witnessed meeting one-one-one with a participant, this situation should be brought to the staff’s attention as well as a supervisor. This is not to say that the staff member had any ill intent. We need to stop minor boundary crossing before it becomes a problem. A simple reminder from one staff to another can often be all that is needed. It can be phrased as: “I think you may have forgotten that we have a policy against meeting campers in private.” Also, be sure a supervisor is made aware in case this staff member continues to violate the policy, and further action can be taken. The same type of reporting procedures should be established for inappropriate camper to camper interactions. Minor boundary violations on their own do not necessarily indicate abuse, but multiple violations witnessed by multiple individuals in different settings can sometimes be a sign that something else is going on.

We will never fully eliminate the risk of child abuse within our programs. However, we can develop policies and procedures that will help reduce the risk, but this is only the first step. What is more important is that these polices and procedures are followed 100% of the time. Unfortunately, our world is full of far too many cases of situations where procedures were not followed resulting in irreversible damage and terrible consequences. What we do know is that staying silent on issues of alleged abuse is not a strategy worth implementing. Penn State is one example and findings in the Freeh Report cite multiple failures in reporting and follow-through on alleged inappropriate actions. The line “If you see something, say something” is one to live by when working with youth. If something does not change, and there are still concerns, keep saying something until actions are taken to investigate alleged inappropriate interactions.

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