When I used to work for a youth-serving agency, I kept crisis plans in a folder in a drawer near my desk. One of them was for what to do in the event of a child abuse allegation against a staff member or volunteer.
Thankfully, I never had to use that particular crisis plan. But every agency serving young people should heed the lessons from the recent implosion of the Second Mile, over allegations of child sexual abuse by the charity’s prominent founder, Jerry Sandusky.
Sometimes the best PR is prevention. Public relations staff can play a key role in asking, “what if?” about policies and procedures, gently nudging organizations to improve and make themselves better. Here’s a few observations emerging from the Sandusky Second Mile scandal that every charity serving young people should consider:
Check your screening procedures and safety policies for all adults interacting with young people. Most agencies serving young people today, thankfully, have put in place screening procedures that include federal and state level background checks against sex offender registries for staff and volunteers working directly with young people, as well as management policies that ensure young people are never completely alone with one adult.
Codify the policies and make sure that staff and volunteers are trained on them and understand them. Ensure that mandatory reporting procedures for suspected child abuse are clear and in place. Take allegations seriously – something that didn’t happen at Second Mile. Good policies and procedures that everyone is aware of and follows, can make it more difficult for abuse to happen.
Go one step further. Put in place safety education programs for the children and teens who are involved with your organization. A guide to help organizations and communities evaluate programs is available for free online from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (disclosure – I have consulted for many years with NCMEC).
Look at who really interacts with young people. Don’t assume that founders or “non-youth program staff” are exempt from all contact with young people. Position or celebrity are no excuse for non-compliance with agency policies when it comes to child safety. If adults are spending significant time or having contact with young people, they also need to comply with the agency’s background check procedures and child abuse prevention policies.
It may feel awkward to ask a board member or staff member who only works occasionally with young people to go through background screening or training, but awkwardness is no excuse. The situation with Second Mile should be a wake up call that obliterates any objections to background screening and training, for good.
Review your board and governance procedures – now. An analysis by Sumption and Wyland found alarming board management practices, employment and governance issues within Second Mile, that surely played a role in fostering an environment where a predator could operate and child safety policies were circumvented. It can take time to address board deficiencies, legal snafus and governance issues. Don’t allow old governance problems to fester because they are difficult or time-consuming to address.
Preventing the victimization of children, should be an important consideration for every charity that works with young people. We should all heed the lessons of the Sandusky Second Mile scandal, and go the extra mile to ensure we are providing safer environments for young people.