Reporting the Unthinkable: Preparing Your Organization to Respond to Sexual Abuse
Although Safe Kids Thrive emphasizes the prevention of child maltreatment by taking steps to create an environment that protects the children in your care, at the same time, you must be ready to recognize child abuse if it occurs—and respond immediately, appropriately, and effectively. The statistics around abuse are telling: No matter what your youth-serving organization (YSO) looks like or what prevention strategies you implement, it’s possible that at least some of your participating children/youth have been or may be at risk to become victims of sexual abuse. That is why every administrator, manager, supervisor, employee, and volunteer at your YSO should understand what abuse looks like, how to respond to it, and how to get the help they need to stop it.
A Culture of Awareness
Ensuring the maximum protection for your children/youth requires increasing your staff and volunteer awareness, training them to recognize a child who may be in trouble, and informing them of their responsibilities under Massachusetts reporting laws and your own policies and procedures. Your leadership must then support your staff by creating a culture prioritizing child safety and abuse prevention, where all staff and volunteers are encouraged to come forward, concerns can be expressed and discussed without fear, and immediate, appropriate action is taken—including reporting the allegation, suspicion, or disclosure to those responsible for responding.
Prepare By Putting It in Writing
Preparedness to respond to and report abuse begins with establishing clear expectations in your Code of Conduct about the behaviors expected from your staff and volunteers when they are supervising or interacting with children/youth. Your written policies, training, education, and ongoing conversations with staff and volunteers should define appropriate, inappropriate, and harmful behaviors, and establish clear lines of communication, reporting, and actions staff or volunteers should take if they witness a situation or interaction that falls outside the boundaries of appropriateness. In this way, inappropriate behaviors or boundary violations with children/youth that were inadvertent or due to inexperience can be addressed through intervention, supervision, and monitoring—and corrected before they cross the line into harmful or abusive behaviors that must be reported. However, if the behaviors continue, a report may need to be filed with the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF).
Recognize Reportable Conduct
It’s also vital that your YSO is prepared to recognize the behavioral and physical symptoms that children/youth exhibit when subjected to various types of maltreatment—and the behavioral characteristics of grooming that indicate an offender may be preparing a child/youth for eventual sexual contact.
Minimum Required Elements for Recognizing, Responding to, and Reporting Child Abuse
Outline of Responsibilities
All employees and volunteers:
- Are aware of their legal/organizational obligations to immediately report suspected abuse.
- Are trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of abuse.
- Know how to respond to a child who discloses abuse.
- Know how to report concerns, suspicions, allegations and disclosures of abuse.
Clear, written procedures that provide step-by-step guidance on what to do if there are any concerns, allegations, suspicions or disclosures of abuse (current or historic)
A designated person (agent)/group/office whose role it is to receive reports of suspected, observed or disclosed abuse.
A clear reporting chain is identified that contacts (or assists reporters in contacting) DCF and/or law enforcement.
Internal Investigation Procedures
Clear guidelines on conducting internal investigations when the alleged perpetrator is an employee or volunteer in the YSO. This includes providing supervision and support to staff and volunteers following an incident or allegation, and a communication plan for parents/community.
Information/training about the issues of child-on-child and youth-on-youth abuse and human trafficking (sexually exploited child).
Together, these resources will guide your YSO in creating an implementation and decision-making model that clarifies reporting requirements—preparing your entire team to respond to abuse in the event it happens.
Reporting How-To in 3 Steps
Determine and implement appropriate ways to inform YSO staff and volunteers about the signs and symptoms of child abuse and neglect, and make them aware of their responsibilities under Massachusetts law.
- Introduce to prospective staff and volunteers during the screening and hiring process that the YSO, in addition to providing its services, strives to provide those services in an environment that is safe and that responds immediately to allegations, suspicions, or disclosures of child abuse.
- Include in the YSO’s Policies and Procedures and Code of Conduct the requirement for all staff and volunteers to report any allegations, suspicions, or disclosures of child abuse.
- Use the information in this section on the Massachusetts definitions of child abuse, the Chart on Physical and Behavioral Indicators of Abuse/Child Trafficking (below), the DCF Reporting Brochure and the Sample Reporting Flow Chart in Appendix 11 as handouts to introduce the facts about child abuse and its symptoms.
- Keep the focus on answering the basics: “What is child abuse?” “How do I recognize it?” and “What am I supposed to do when I see it?
- Depending on the size of the YSO and number of employees and volunteers, YSO leaders can consider conducting roundtable discussions, “brown-bag” lunches, in-service training, or “professional days” on the topic of child/youth safety.
- Consider assigning online training modules to be completed; partnering with other YSOs already conducting training programs; or inviting DCF or other local social service agencies to conduct an on-site workshop or training (Also see Training section below).
Determine the process by which the YSO will prepare staff and volunteers to respond to a child/youth who discloses abuse. Consider ways to encourage and support staff in coming forward to report child abuse that is suspected, observed, or disclosed.
- Teach staff and volunteers that the way a disclosure of child abuse is handled can affect the impact it has on the victim.
- Reproduce and use the Guidelines for Disclosures below to discuss the ways to respond to children and youth who disclose abuse so that they feel supported and believed.
- Ensure that whoever is talking with staff and volunteers about these topics is comfortable with the subject matter. These are not easy conversations to have, but they are critical – not taboo. The comfort of the presenter can affect the comfort of staff and volunteers.
- Maximize opportunities to talk with staff about child/youth protection issues and policies. Regular conversations will make it easier for staff to discuss behaviors, ask questions and approach situations from a prevention perspective.
- Ensure that staff knows that reporting suspected abuse (even if the reporter is unsure) affords protections for the reporter under Massachusetts law. The protection of the victim is the primary concern. Reluctance to come forward and report is often a result of concerns of personal liability.
Determine the YSO responses to allegations, suspicions, and disclosures of child abuse committed by individuals outside the YSO, and by YSO staff or volunteers. Include the specific cases of abuse committed by another child or youth, and child trafficking. Staff must understand the steps to follow in making a report—and to whom the report must be made.
- In simplest form, a YSO can choose to designate a single person or “officer” to whom all reports are made. The designated reporter then assumes the responsibility (or helps the reporter) to contact the authorities, provide the required information, and follow up with the filing of the 51A Report Form.
- Ensure the reporting chain is clearly described. In smaller organizations, the reporting chain could be a single person. In larger organizations, the chain could include supervisors, managers, human resources, communications, and legal staff.
- Provide forms that will make it easier for incidents to be recorded by staff and ensure the confidentiality and security of those records (see Sample Incident Report in Resources section).
- If the offender is a YSO staff member or volunteer, an additional internal reporting and investigation process will likely need to happen concurrently with the DCF response. This includes:
- Interviewing the alleged offender and informing them of the allegations
- Determining the employment status of the alleged offender
- Coordinating with DCF the response to the victim and family
- Notifying the rest of the staff and providing support
- Assessing the conditions that allowed for the abuse to occur
- Preparing a response to other parents, and to the media
- Make staff and volunteers aware that abuse can also take place between children or youth, and that children/youth also exhibit the symptoms of being sexually exploited or trafficked. In either case, the process is the same – report to the designated reporter and contact the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families.
- These processes should be identified in the YSO’s policies and made clear to all staff and volunteers.