How Youth Serving Organizations Can Prevent Child Sex Abuse

A guide to organizational policies and procedures to prevent sexual grooming.

Posted Nov 13, 2020

Pixabay License. No attribution required
Source: Pixabay License. No attribution required

Child sexual abuse is a serious global problem. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimate that between 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys will be abused before they reach 18. According to a report by the U.S Department of Justice, in about one-third of cases of child sexual abuse (34%), the perpetrator is a family member and in 7% of cases, the perpetrator is a stranger (i.e. someone the child has known less than 24 hours). However, in almost 6 out of 10 cases of child sexual abuse (59%), the perpetrator is someone known to the child/teen, but who is not related to them. 

Given this knowledge, it is important to understand how individuals who are perpetrating abuse are gaining access to minors so we can put into place policies and protections to limit their access. It is estimated that in almost half of all cases of child sexual abuse, the perpetrator is using sexual grooming.

Sexual grooming is defined as the deceptive process used by sexual abusers to facilitate sexual contact with a minor while simultaneously avoiding detection. Prior to the commission of the sexual abuse, the would-be sexual abuser may select a victim, gain access to and isolate the minor, develop trust with the minor and often their guardians, community, and minor serving institutions, and desensitize the minor to sexual content and physical contact. Post-abuse, the offender may use maintenance strategies on the victim to facilitate future sexual abuse and/or to prevent disclosure.

While some research suggests that sexual grooming is difficult to detect as many of the grooming behaviors are similar to normal adult and child interactions, researchers have identified a series of observable behaviors that encompass sexual grooming and that should be cause for concern if they occur in clusters, happen frequently or represent the most severe behaviors (i.e. involving sexual content or touch).

While parents are at the forefront of protecting their children from sexual abuse, children are not always under parental supervision and thus we must rely on youth-serving institutions to protect our children as well. While the prevalence of child sexual abuse that takes place within youth-serving institutions is unknown, news and media reports of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, Boy Scouts of America, sporting organizations such as USA gymnastics and schools highlight that institutional child sexual abuse is a serious and widespread global issue and that institutional perpetrators often use sexual grooming tactics.

Given what we know about those who abuse children and teens within institutional settings, the CDC developed a list of six key components to be addressed as part of comprehensive sexual abuse prevention policies and procedures within youth-serving organizations as delineated below:

1. Screening and Selecting Employees and Volunteers: In addition to general job-related skills, youth-serving organizations need to consider child abuse prevention when screening potential candidates for any positions in which they will have contact with minors (both paid and unpaid). This should include teenagers and adults, as one-third of all minors are abused by another minor. Further, this should apply to all candidates, including individuals that are well known to the employers or employees that have worked with the organization in the past. Screening and selection strategies should include:

  • A review of the organizational code of conduct and ethics
  • A thorough background check including criminal records (should encompass arrests, charges, and convictions)
  • A search of the internet including social media
  • Calling all previous employers and verify dates of employment which should correspond to those listed on the resume and reasons for leaving. 

With criminal records checks, red flags would be any charges or convictions involving endangering a minor or a sexually related crime including non-contact offenses such as possession of child pornography. It should be noted that an absence of a criminal record does not mean that the person is safe as many sex crimes go unreported or undetected and not all criminal record checks show information pertaining to arrests and charges not resulting in conviction.

Also, if there is a gap on their resume, make sure to follow-up as to why that is and make sure no positions were omitted. In addition, conduct a personal interview and ask open-ended questions specifically asking about the potential employee/volunteer’s desire to work with youth. 

2. Guidelines for Interactions Between Individuals: Youth-serving organizations should seek to encourage positive interactions between adults and youth and minimize harmful ones. Institutions should have a clearly spelled out code of conduct for employees/volunteers as it pertains to preventing sexual violence. There should be regular training on this code of conduct and employees should sign off on having read and understood them on at minimum a yearly basis. Policies should include (but are not limited to):

  • Having at least two adults present at all times when working with youth (i.e. no one-on-one interactions)
  • Guidelines for physical contact (i.e. no hugs; physical contact only as required for safety such as spotting in gymnastics or to correct form (body placement))
  • A zero-tolerance policy for sexual comments or jokes
  • Prohibiting contact with minors outside of institutional-related events (i.e. do not drive minors home in personal vehicles, take minors out for meals, or non-organization related excursions)
  • Recognizing that youth can abuse other youth, so having policies where certain high-risk activities or areas such as changing rooms have two adults present during times when youth are changing

3. Monitoring Behavior: Once staff and volunteer behavior policies have been established, then violations of these policies must be monitored, enforced, and documented. Inappropriate behaviors may include showing favoritism to certain youth, giving gifts, and spending time alone with youth.

Each violation or boundary violation should be examined by a team including human resources and legal representatives. While some boundary violations may warrant a warning and behavior plan, other violations such as those involving potential grooming behaviors and sexual content should result in immediate termination and the potential involvement of authorities (if sexual contact was involved). 

While ultimately supervisors are responsible for those who work under them, to prevent sexual violence, all employees and volunteers are responsible for monitoring behavior within the organization and there should be a clear reporting chain. All employees and volunteers should also have regular (at least annual) training on sexual abuse prevention policies and regular supervision and evaluations where these issues are evaluated and discussed. Supervisors should also regularly conduct unscheduled observations (in person, or via video) of employees and volunteers as they are engaging with youth.

4. Ensuring Safe Environments: Youth-serving organizations must also create environments that can help prevent sexual abuse. This involves having:

  • Clear lines of sight
  • Bright lights
  • Video cameras or security in areas that may be hidden from view
  • Locked closets and storerooms
  • Windows in all doors
  • Open-door policies
  • The use and monitoring of video cameras

Policies and guidelines should also be created to address safety when on the toilet, showering, and changing clothes. Further protocols must be established for transportation to and from institution-sanctioned events and policies regarding youth traveling in employee/volunteers’ cars.

5. Responding to Inappropriate Behavior, Breaches in Policy, and Allegations and Suspicions of Child Sexual Abuse: It is the responsibility of the youth-serving organization to develop policies and procedures to protect against sexual abuse; however if sexual abuse is suspected, then it is the authorities such as police and child protection services who should be notified to investigate the allegations or suspicions. The CDC notes that conducting internal investigations can harm the youth and/or the legal investigative process. Other recommendations include:

  • Collaborating with a lawyer regarding reporting policies
  • Identifying who within the organization is a mandated child abuse reporter
  • Defining the continuum of appropriate, inappropriate, and harmful behaviors
  • Defining which violations will be handled internally and which ones require contacting the authorities
  • Developing confidentiality and community/press notification policies when an accusation of child sexual abuse is made and/or confirmed
  • Having a policy about what to do regarding the employment of staff/volunteers who are accused of sexual abuse while the accusation is being investigated
  • Having clear documentation of all reports and investigation proceedings and results

6. Training About Child Sexual Abuse Prevention: The final component of a comprehensive child abuse prevention policy is training. Training should be done yearly, documented, and including separate training for employees/volunteers, caregivers, and the youth themselves. Training should include but not be limited to:

  • General information about child sexual abuse, including a discussion of sexual grooming and warning signs
  • Organizational policies and procedures for child sexual abuse prevention
  • How to handle disclosures of sexual abuse and reporting
  • Definitions of appropriate and inappropriate conduct and behaviors

Caregivers and youth should receive training on child sexual abuse information including the stages of grooming and what may constitute grooming behaviors. They should also be trained on organizational policies and procedures and what to do if abuse is suspected.

While none of these policies in and of itself is foolproof, having the aforementioned policies and procedures in place, as well as having all employees and volunteers within the organization trained about the signs of sexual grooming and sexual abuse and how to respond, will make it less likely that a perpetrator can use their institutional affiliation to gain access to youth for the purposes of sexual abuse. Thus, parents and guardians should be aware of the sexual abuse policies and procedures of the youth-serving organizations that their children are involved with, and make sure that they encompass the six components set forth by the CDC to prevent child abuse in youth-serving organizations.

References

For more information, see: Jeglic, E.L., & Calkins, C.A. (2018). Protecting Your Child from Sexual Abuse: What you Need to Know to Keep your Kids Safe. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.