It’s essential that interactions between your employees/volunteers and the youth you serve are appropriate and positive, support positive youth development, make children and youth feel valued, and provide the caring connections that serve to protect them. At the same time, inappropriate or harmful interactions put children and youth at risk for adverse physical and emotional outcomes.
That’s why it’s important that you identify behaviors that fall into the categories of appropriate, inappropriate, and harmful. Your Code of Conduct should explain those categorizations, and the expected responses when inappropriate or harmful behaviors are observed—up to and including a report to the Department of Children and Families.
For example, Codes of Conduct generally try to draw attention to the power differential between adults/authority figures and children/youth, and the importance of appropriate physical, emotional, and verbal boundaries. And they emphasize the use of discretion when touching a child, defining appropriate and inappropriate touch.
Appropriate, Inappropriate, and Harmful Behaviors
- High fives
- Fist bumps
- Side hugs
- Pats on the back or shoulder
- Holding hands crossing the street (younger children)
- Verbal praise
- Positive reinforcement for good work or behavior
- Tending an injured child/youth
- Tickling, wrestling
- Rough housing
- Piggyback rides
- Backrubs or massage
- Seating a child on one’s lap
- Patting on the buttocks (sports)
- Unwanted affection
- Photography without permission
- Giving/receiving gifts
- Contact via electronic or social media without permission
- Grabbing, shaking
- Slapping, spanking
- Pinching, pushing
- Touching private body parts
- Intimate, romantic or sexual contact
- Belittling, embarrassing
- Referencing physical development or appearance
- Showing pornography
Physical contact between adults and the children/youth they supervise should always be public, age-appropriate, and non-sexual in nature. Establishing guidelines includes identifying a balance between encouraging positive and appropriate interactions and discouraging inappropriate and harmful interactions. With this balance in mind, your strategies can ensure that youth can benefit from your program without risk of sexual abuse or harm.
The boundaries between appropriate, inappropriate, and harmful behaviors aren’t always clear. If inappropriate or harmful behaviors do occur, it’s critically important that anyone who observes those behaviors feels free to speak up—even if they are unsure what to do next—and knows who in the reporting chain they need to contact. Some questionable behaviors can be handled internally with closer supervision; others need to be reported to law enforcement and/or the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families. Communication from leadership and supervisors is key. It’s critical that you reinforce your general safety policies and Code of Conduct through supervision, at staff meetings, and during other training and professional development opportunities. That way, conversations about behaviors become more normalized and less reluctant. When this is accomplished, it will be easier and safer for your staff and volunteers to talk about any day-to-day behaviors that cause concern—and the safer your environment will be for everyone.
Your Code of Conduct can also help to clarify certain behaviors and circumstances, so everyone is on the same page. These include:
- Handling one-on-one meetings with children—either prohibiting them or setting guidelines around when and how they may take place (i.e., only when other adults can have open access or the ability to observe)
- Prohibiting smoking, alcohol, and drug use when around children
- Prohibiting profanity or jokes with sexual innuendo when around children
- Prohibiting contact with children outside of your professional or organizational relationship
- Requiring compliance with the Massachusetts child abuse and neglect reporting laws
Saul J, Audage NC. Preventing Child Sexual Abuse Within Youth-serving Organizations: Getting Started on Policies and Procedures. Atlanta (GA): Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control; 2007.
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