Fostering a Safe Environment for the Children You Serve
When parents, grandparents, and other caregivers entrust their children to your care, they do so with the expectation that you will only provide good quality services, and that you’ve taken the necessary steps to ensure their child’s physical safety and well-being. Of course, no organization can claim that its premises or programs are completely safe, and children and youth—especially younger children—are extremely vulnerable to the choices and judgment of people taking care of them. But there are best practices and strategies you can use to target safety factors and areas of risk, including the physical and virtual spaces your children use, which can strengthen the safety and security of your environments.
Key Strategies for Every Environment
Programming for children and youth takes place in a wide range of settings over which you may have varying degrees of control. You may operate in space designed specifically for your activities and services, or you may utilize space that is designed for entirely different purposes. In mentoring- and relationship-oriented programs, there is no single identified space for activities—except perhaps in the mentor’s home. Overnight trips, competitions, and performances also bring staff and children/youth into unfamiliar environments. Any of these can present significant challenges in offering safe places for children and youth. That’s why it’s so important for you to have policies and procedures in place to establish safe physical environments, including the supervision of children and youth. Your policies should strive to meet best practice standards while recognizing and accounting for the limitations and realities of your settings.
Key Strategies for Every Environment
Key strategies for safe on-site and off-site safety should include four elements: visibility, access, supervision/training, and communication.
From a physical perspective, a rule of thumb to protect children is visibility. The greatest fear of those who would sexually abuse or victimize children is to be discovered.
You can reduce the risk of an offender committing abuse undetected by designing, building, or adapting your existing spaces to maximize visibility, and minimizing or eliminating spaces where children and youth cannot be seen. We also suggest that you create a “safety committee” that periodically conducts site surveys, noting potential problem areas and maintenance needs.
The safety and security of your children and youth are also impacted by access to your physical space—how it’s granted and monitored. All adults who enter the space occupied by your children and youth should have a purpose for being in that space, and a role that is understood by all of your occupants. There should be control over access points, and procedures for admitting individuals into the facility, including verifying their identity, signing them in and out of the space, and badging or some other visible sign indicating who they are (Parent, Visitor, Contractor, etc.).
Once inside the facility, the identity of your supervisors, staff, and volunteers should be clear so everyone will know who can help with concerns, questions, or emergencies that may arise. In addition, you should maintain an updated list of the individuals authorized to pick up your organization’s children/youth, procedures for releasing the child/youth to an adult’s custody, and the steps to follow if the adult’s identity can’t be confirmed or they are not on your list. Finally, you should establish emergency procedures to follow if an unauthorized or unknown person gains access to your facility.
SUPERVISION AND COMMUNICATION
Supervision is critical to creating and maintaining safe environments for your children and youth. Simply stated, adequate supervision depends on vigilance. No child or youth in your care should be anywhere—at any time—without the knowledge of, and direct supervision of a staff member or adult volunteer. Effective supervision always includes adult awareness of the child’s/youth’s whereabouts, having the child/youth within sight, and monitoring or participating in the child’s/youth’s activities and interactions.
It’s particularly important that your staff has an efficient way to communicate with each other if your facilities are spread out in large spaces or dispersed into separate rooms or multiple buildings. Of course, your ability to maintain this level of supervision will depend on the ratio of adults to children and youth established by your organization’s leadership. There are guidelines suggesting the optimal ratios of adults to children/youth, but they’re not universal. Here are things to consider as you identify the right ratio for your YSO:
- Age and development levels of the children and youth you serve (lower ages or development levels may necessitate fewer children/youth per supervisor)
- Age of volunteers (older teens who are not adults should always work in tandem with an adult supervisor)
- Risk associated with your activity
- Location of your activity
- Your ability to monitor and keep track of individual children/youth (on/off-site, classroom or park, etc.)
Even with a satisfactory ratio of employees/volunteers to children/youth, your training, monitoring, and staff supervision will need to emphasize the need to keep attention and interactions focused on the children/youth and to avoid distractions like cell phones, email, and personal conversations.
Transportation is another consideration when it comes to supervision. If your YSO is responsible for transporting children to and from regular activities and special events, there is potential for inappropriate contact with the children/youth being transported. Of course, circumstances will differ depending on the size of your organization and the services you provide. Depending on your size, you may employ professional transportation companies to transport students or clients on a daily basis, or purchase your own vehicle(s) and hire one or more drivers. Or you may rely on supervisors, employees, volunteers, or parents to transport children/youth in their personal vehicles. Whether or not you’re a large YSO subject to regulatory requirements for the screening and hiring of drivers, it’s important to have strategies in place to maximize transportation supervision.
Safe Technology Use
Children and youth use the Internet and social media regularly—and that presents a unique set of challenges for your YSO. Smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices provide children and youth with immediate and constant access to the Internet and a wide variety of methods, sites, and apps to communicate with individuals and groups on a daily basis. This “virtual” environment has become a primary source of information and entertainment, and helps children/youth build communication, collaboration, research, and information management skills they will need in their future education, employment, and professional work. However, these technologies can also be used to cause harm (cyber-bullying), access inappropriate or sexually explicit material and information (sexting, pornography), and in some cases, as a means for offenders to engage and groom children/youth for eventual abuse.
For these reasons, it’s important for your YSO to develop and adopt social media and “responsible use” policies that outline the acceptable and prohibited uses of cell phones and other devices your staff and volunteers use to communicate with children/youth, and incorporate them into their safe environment policies, rules and regulations, and Codes of Conduct.
Safe Kids Thrive also provides a list of safety elements to consider when you create a social media policy, checklists, sample policy language, and a list of minimum safe environment standards to consider when you craft policies to address the physical and procedural safety of your environments.
Safe Environments How-To in 3 Steps
Determine if the minimum physical and procedural standards for a safe environment are present.
Minimum physical standards include:
- Facilities designed or adapted to ensure clear sightlines
- All children and youth can be seen
- Unused areas/rooms secured and locked
- Off-limits areas clearly marked
- All areas well lit
- Safety rules and regulations posted
Minimum procedural standards include rules and regulations for using the space:
- Child/youth entry and release procedures (Check-in/sign-in/sign-out)
- Visitor entry policy and expectations while in the facility
- “No closed-door” policy
- Rules about 1-on-1 meetings
- Adequate staff-to-child/youth ratios for supervision, and a clear understanding of which adults are responsible for which children and youth
- Procedures for bathroom use, and changing and shower facilities (if applicable)
- Code of Conduct for employees/volunteers/children/youth (see Code of Conduct section)
Determine what additional activities, circumstances, risks or regulatory/licensing, or accreditation requirements pertain to the YSO.
- Are there additional requirements established by local, state, and national organizations/agencies?
- What size and how dispersed are the physical space(s) occupied by the YSO?
- What kind of control does the YSO have over the design, maintenance, utilization of, and access to the physical space it occupies?
- Is transportation to/from the YSO and to/from YSO activities one of the services the YSO provides?
- Are overnight activities, trips, competitions, exhibitions, etc. conducted by the YSO?
- Are 1-on-1 interactions between staff/volunteers and children/youth (mentoring, tutoring, counseling, etc.) a normal part of the services provided?
- Do the ages and circumstances (intellectual/physical disabilities or other limitations) of the children/youth being served, and the risk of the activity require modification of the staff and volunteer to child/youth ratio? How and when?
- By what means will staff and volunteers be able to communicate with one another – especially in emergency situations – if they are not co-located.
- Is electronic communication between staff/volunteers and children/youth prohibited/necessary/allowed, and under what circumstances?
Select and utilize additional safe environment measures as needed.
- Understand and implement additional statutory and/or regulatory requirements.
- Additional staff will be required for supervision of multiple rooms or space on multiple floors or in different buildings. A clear way to identify staff (badges, tee-shirts, caps) and an efficient means for staff to communicate with one another (walkie talkies, company cell phones, etc.) are important for larger spaces.
- If vendors and other service providers must enter the premises, you’ll need procedures for entry, identification, badging, monitoring, and notification to all staff. Children/youth also need to know that work areas are off-limits.
- Larger spaces may require surveillance cameras and mirrors to monitor adequately, and the designation of a single (possibly monitored) entry point to minimize/eliminate unauthorized entry by adults, and children/youth “wandering” through the building.
- Spaces not owned by the YSO (and unable to be modified) or that are in buildings with public access, will need additional signage to steer children/youth away from areas that are off limits, accompaniment to toileting facilities (for younger children), and periodic security checks of any public spaces through which children/youth must pass.
- Mentoring and relationship-oriented programs that require 1-on-1 meetings off-site will require visiting/inspecting the mentor’s home and additional supervision and vigilance.
- Off-site activities will require policies and procedures about the use of YSO transportation (ensure parental consent), additional screening of drivers (Also see the section on Screening and Hiring), policies about the use of personal vehicles to transport children and youth or, alternately, reliance on parents and other caregivers to transport their children to and from events.
- Overnight activities will require additional policies about room accommodations and sleeping arrangements, who is allowed in the rooms, who will check in on the children/youth, and how often, etc.
- If necessary, the use of social media and electronic communication between YSO personnel and children/youth should be governed by a social media policy and outlined in the Code of Conduct.
- It is important for YSO leaders to periodically (at least annually) update themselves and their staff on advances in social media technologies in order to evaluate and review how these safe environment protocols are working and whether/how they need to be revised in order to remain effective.