It is extremely disturbing for most adults to consider that a colleague or co-worker might be abusing children—but it happens. In these cases, children need special protection. A common response when a fellow employee or volunteer is suspected of abuse, especially if the person is popular or has been part of the organization for a long period of time, is to deny, rationalize, or ignore it. Sometimes the alleged abuser is transferred to another organizational location, is allowed to resign, or is fired. But experience has shown that, even with a suspension, reprimand or transfer, the violation is likely to happen again if intervention and monitoring don’t take place.
Start with Your Code of Conduct
Codes of Conduct exist to clearly identify a range of expected and prohibited behaviors for all adults who interact with children/youth at your organization. If an employee or volunteer is behaving in a way that causes concern, it’s important that the observer can distinguish violations of the Code of Conduct that require a report to law enforcement or the Department of Children and Families (DCF), from those that may be handled internally (those that are correctable by supervisors or managers).
Your Code of Conduct should require employees and volunteers—even those who aren’t mandated reporters—to address or report any behaviors and practices that may be inappropriate or harmful. Inappropriate behaviors or minor violations of the Code of Conduct can sometimes be addressed by a fellow employee, who brings the violation to the attention of the offending co-worker to remind them of the rules. If the behaviors continue, however, reporting them to a supervisor or manager for correction would be more appropriate. If the behavior is more serious and raises suspicion that a child/youth is being or is about to be abused, a report to DCF must be made.
Report Direct Disclosures
If a child/youth reports being sexually, physically, or emotionally abused by someone in your organization, it’s essential to remember that it takes courage for an abused child/youth to talk to someone. After talking with them using our recommended guidelines (See “Guidelines for Disclosure” in side bar), you should immediately report the disclosure to DCF. Depending on the situation, DCF personnel will then interview the child/youth or refer the allegations to law enforcement to determine the veracity of the allegation. If the child or youth knows anyone else to whom this has happened, an additional 51A report is required by the mandated reporter.
Action After Reporting Abuse by an Employee/Volunteer
In the situations where DCF is contacted and begins its investigation, you will also likely have an organizational reporting chain to be notified. Depending on the size of your organization, this internal chain could include human resources, supervisors, organization leadership, risk managers, your communications office, and your general counsel—possibly even your Board of Trustees.
Their tasks might include interviewing and notifying the alleged offender of the allegations, determining whether the alleged offender should be fired, or placed on paid or unpaid leave, notifying the rest of the staff, communicating with parents, issuing press releases to notify the general public, determining whether it is safe for the child/youth to continue to receive services from your organization while the DCF investigation is ongoing, and providing a form of organizational support to the alleged victim and family.
If an incident occurs, your organization should have a process identified ahead of time about if, when, and how to respond to inquiries from the media and the community:
- Identify specific leadership and/or senior staff members as those who should respond to the inquiries. In some organizations large enough to have a communications office, for example, they would be the appropriate ones to respond.
- Remind all other staff members and volunteers to direct inquiries to the designated leader(s), staff member(s), or office.
- Prepare a statement from leadership with information about how children are being protected and how the incident is being handled. Have the statement reviewed by your legal counsel or advisor before being shared with the public.
The CDC has also suggested the following* expanded elements for consideration in these circumstances:
Because of the sensitive nature of child sexual abuse cases, your organization should decide in advance what information should remain private and what information can be made public.
- Withhold the names of potential victims, the accused perpetrator, and the people who made the report to the authorities.
- Decide whether to inform the community that an allegation has been made.
- Ensure that your organization’s confidentiality policy is consistent with state legal requirements.
Response to the press and the community
Your organization should decide on a strategy for responding to the press and the community before an allegation has been made.
- Designate a spokesperson for questions and inquiries.
- Have employees/volunteers go through training on how to deal with the press and the community, if appropriate.
Coping process for the organization and community
The organization and community as a whole may need help getting past the child sexual abuse that has occurred.
- Adopt strategies such as showing that steps are being taken to deal appropriately with the situation, providing support groups, and having forums to discuss the topic and answer questions.
- Adopt a policy for notifying the wider organization and caregivers that child sexual abuse has happened. But before doing so, determine what information is appropriate to share.
- Train caregivers on how to talk to youth about child sexual abuse.
- Debrief or offer support and counseling for reporters and bystanders.
- Seek assistance in using restorative justice approaches to help the community heal.
*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.
Additionally, you may choose to assess the internal conditions or situations that may have allowed the alleged abuse to take place, including:
- Were the safety policies and procedures and code of conduct clear enough?
- Were screening and hiring procedures followed?
- Was training adequate or inadequate?
- Were monitoring activities and internal supervisory procedures being followed?
- When the situation was noticed, how was it addressed?
While this internal process is taking place, it shouldn’t interfere in any way with the investigation by DCF or law enforcement. The child/youth should not be interviewed by the internal team. The best thing for your organization to do in a situation like this is to cooperate with the investigators and to stay out of their way until the DCF investigative process is completed and the allegations are resolved.
It’s also never appropriate to ask victims to tell their stories in front of the alleged abuser. There is a significant difference in power and resources between adults and children/youth, and asking them to relate their story in front of the alleged perpetrator further victimizes them.
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