Incorporating Polyvagal Approaches and the…
PSB Lunch and Learn Series Fall 2023: Incorporating Polyvagal Approaches and the Neurobiology of…
When parents, grandparents and other caregivers entrust their children to an organization’s care, they do so with the expectation that the organization will not only provide good quality services, but has also taken the necessary steps to ensure the 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 judgements of the people taking care of them. But organizations can employ best practices strategies to look at all safety factors and areas of risk, including the physical and virtual spaces children inhabit, and work to strengthen the safety and security of those environments. The key strategies to employ, either on-site or off-site, are visibility, access, supervision/training and communication. Sample checklists YSOs can use to inventory their Safe Environment capabilities are included in the Resources section and in Appendix 10.
Programming for children and youth takes place in a wide range of settings over which organizations have varying degrees of control. Some YSOs operate in space that was designed specifically for the activities and services they offer to children, youth and families. In other cases, YSOs utilize space that was designed for entirely different purposes. In mentoring and relationship-oriented programs, there is no single identified space for the activities to take place – except perhaps in the mentor’s home. Any of these can present significant challenges in offering safe places for children and youth. Policies and procedures to establish safe physical environments, including supervision of children and youth within those environments, should strive to meet best practice standards while recognizing and accounting for the limitations and realities of the settings.
From a physical perspective, visibility is key to protecting children and youth. The greatest fear of those who would sexually abuse or victimize children is being discovered. In this section, YSOs are encouraged to take actions to design, build or adapt existing spaces to maximize visibility, and to minimize or eliminate space where children and youth cannot be seen. Multiple strategies, suggested practices and resources to help achieve these goals are presented for both on- and off-site, as well as overnight activities. It is also suggested that YSOs create a “safety committee” that periodically conducts site surveys noting potential problem areas and/or maintenance needs.
Complementing the physical aspects of safety are the procedural aspects of safety and security, and how access to the physical space – and thus to the children and youth – is granted and monitored. All adults who enter the space occupied by the YSO’s children and youth should have a purpose for being in that space, and a role that is understood by all its occupants. There should be control over access points, and procedures for admitting individuals into the facility, verifying their identity, signing them in and out of the space and badging or some other outward sign of who they are (Parent, Visitor, Contractor, etc.). Likewise, once inside the facility, the identity of supervisors, staff, and volunteers should be clear to all so that anyone will know whom to approach with a concern, question or emergency should the need arise.
Other strategies discussed are maintaining an updated list of the individuals who are authorized to pick up a child/youth from the facility, procedures for releasing a child/youth to their custody, and the steps to follow if their identity cannot be confirmed or they are not on the list. YSOs should also establish emergency procedures to follow if an unauthorized or unknown person gains access to the facility.
Along with site safety, visibility issues, physical access and security procedures, supervision is another critical aspect of creating and maintaining safe environments for children and youth. Simply stated, adequate supervision of children and youth depends on vigilance – no child or youth in a YSO’s care should be anywhere – at any time – without the knowledge of, or without being under the 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 and/or participating in the child’s/youth’s activities and interactions. An efficient means for staff to communicate with one another is particularly important when the YSO’s facilities are spread out in large spaces or are dispersed into separate rooms or multiple buildings.
Of course, the ability to accomplish and maintain this level of supervision will depend on the ratio of adults to children and youth established by the organization’s leadership. Guidelines on the suggested ratios of adults to children/youth exist, but are not universal. Because there is no standard ratio for all situations, the Task Force encourages all YSOs to consider in their decision making process such variables as the age and development levels of the children and youth they serve (lower ages or development levels may necessitate fewer children/youth per supervisor); the age of volunteers (older teens who are not adults should always work in tandem with an adult supervisor); the risk associated with the activity; the location of the activity; and the ability to monitor and keep track of individual children/youth (on/off-site, classroom or park, etc.). Safety strategies for overnight trips are also addressed. Even with a satisfactory ratio of employees and volunteers to children and youth, 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, checking email and personal conversations.
Also addressed in this section is the situation where YSOs are responsible for transporting children to and from regular YSO activities and special events. Of course, circumstances will differ depending on the size of the organization and the services it provides. Large YSOs may employ professional transportation companies to transport their students or clients on a daily basis. Other organizations may purchase their own vehicle(s) and hire one or more drivers. Others, by the nature of their services (or size), may rely on supervisors, employees, volunteers or parents to transport children and youth in their personal vehicles. Each of these situations carries the potential for inappropriate contact with the children/youth being transported. Although some of the larger organizations (e.g., public schools) are subject to regulatory requirements for the screening and hiring of drivers, many YSOs are not. Strategies are offered to help maximize the safety of all involved.
Finally, the prolific use of the Internet and social media by children and youth presents a special set of challenges for YSOs. Cell/Smart phones, tablets and other mobile devices provide children and youth with immediate and constant access to the Internet as well as to a wide variety of methods, sites and apps to communicate with individuals and groups on a daily basis. This “virtual” or “cyber” (rather than physical) environment has become a primary source of information (and entertainment), and helps children and youth build skills in communication, collaboration, and research and information management – skills they will eventually need in their future education, employment and professional work.
However, as children and youth access and navigate this ever-evolving information landscape, 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 by which offenders can engage and groom children and youth for eventual abuse (Also see section on Grooming). Given this reality, and depending on the nature of the YSO’s services, the Task Force suggests that YSOs develop and adopt social media and “responsible use” policies that outline the acceptable and prohibited uses of cell phones and other devices for staff and volunteers to communicate with children and youth, and incorporate them into their safe environment policies, rules and regulations, and Codes of Conduct (Also see Code of Conduct section).
Key Findings and Recommendations
STEP 1: Determine if the Minimum Physical and Procedural Standards for a Safe Environment are Present.
STEP 2: Determine what additional activities, circumstances, risks or regulatory/licensing or accreditation requirements pertain to the YSO.
STEP 3: Select and utilize additional safe environment measures as needed
To establish optimal safe physical environments to reduce the risk of child/youth sexual abuse and exploitation.
Environmental strategies will vary depending on the organization and the physical spaces utilized for programming and activities. In some cases, a YSO will be able to utilize or build physical space designed specifically for the “goods and services” it provides to its children and youth. In many other cases, however, organizations will rent or utilize physical space that may have been originally designed for an entirely different purpose – and may not have the ability or funds to adequately modify them. In these situations, offering a safe place for children and youth may come with additional challenges. In still other cases, YSOs will take its children and youth off-site for various activities. The risk of the environment should be considered regardless of the size of an organization’s physical space. If an organization does not control its own space, back-up strategies should be used to ensure that children, youth, employees and volunteers can be monitored.
In addition to the safety considerations about the physical space occupied by the YSO, are the procedures, guidelines and rules about how that space – especially when occupied by children and youth – is accessed and utilized. This section will talk about both the physical and procedural aspects of building and maintaining a safe environment from the minimum required standards that every YSO should consider implementing, to the more complex aspects of maintaining a safe environment when a YSO occupies a large, dispersed space, or when a YSO takes its children/youth off-site and/or on overnight trips. A decision making strategy to help YSOs determine when additional safe environment elements should be added to the basic requirements is also presented. As a starting point, Table 5 (below) lists a set of minimum safe environment standards to consider as a baseline for decision making. The key strategies to employ in creating safe environments for children either on-site, off-site, or on overnight trips are visibility, access, supervision/training and communication.
YSO leadership is responsible for the continued oversight of these guidelines as well as compliance with all local and state regulatory agencies including the Departments of Early Education and Care (EEC), Mental Health (DMH), Youth Services (DYS), Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and local health departments.
|Minimum Safe Environment Standards|
|✔||Minimum Physical Standards Include:|
|Facilities are designed or adapted to ensure clear sight lines|
|All children and youth can be seen|
|Unused areas/rooms are secured and locked|
|Off-limit areas are clearly marked|
|All areas are well lit|
|Safety rules and regulations are posted|
|✔||Minimum Procedural Standards Include:|
|lnM||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 ratios for supervision, and a clear understanding of which adults are responsible for which children/youth|
|Procedures for bathroom use, and changing and shower facilities (if applicable)|
|Code of conduct for employees/volunteers/children/youth/parents (see Code of Conduct section)|
Principle: To ensure maximum visibility of all children, youth and adults present at all times.
Whether a YSO has the ability to control the design of its space or not, a key element to the physical safety of its facility is to continuously be able to account for all the children and youth for which it is responsible. From this perspective, visibility is key to protecting children and youth. The greatest fear of those who would bully, assault, steal from, sexually abuse or otherwise victimize children is being seen. YSOs of any size are encouraged to take actions within their means to design, build or adapt existing spaces to maximize visibility, and to establish policies and procedures for access to and use of the space including the following:
Overnight Trips: Overnight trips present different challenges related to visibility. If youth are staying in hotel/motel rooms, policies and procedures should:
Principle: To ensure that access to the physical space – and to the children and youth – is monitored and that all adults present have a specified role known to the staff and participants.
Complementing the physical aspects of safety are the procedural aspects of safety and security, and how access to the physical space – and thus to the children and youth – is granted and monitored. All adults who enter the space occupied by the YSO’s children and youth should have a purpose for being in that space, and a role that is understood by all its occupants. There should be control over access points, and procedures for admitting individuals into the facility, verifying their identity, signing them in and out of the space and badging or some other outward sign of who they are (Parent, Visitor, Contractor, etc.). Likewise, once inside the facility, the identity of supervisors, staff, and volunteers should be clear to all so that anyone will know whom to approach with a concern, question or emergency should the need arise. Finally, all staff and volunteers should know which children and youth they are responsible for, and should know their whereabouts at all times. All children and youth should know which adult is primarily responsible for them and to whom they should go for assistance or in times of need.
Because it may not be possible to control access to physical space during off-site activities, policies and procedures need to focus on ensuring the safety of the children and youth in the organization’s care rather than controlling the public access and security of the physical site which may be the responsibility of the host organization or facility owner.
Principle: To create a safe environment by assuring proper adult supervision of children and youth. Ideally, no child or youth should be out of the line of sight of a supervising adult.
Along with site safety, visibility issues, physical access and security procedures, supervision is another critical aspect of creating and maintaining safe environments for children and youth. Simply stated, adequate supervision of children and youth depends on vigilance – no child or youth in a YSO’s care should be anywhere – at any time – without the knowledge of, or without being under the 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 and/or participating in the child’s/youth’s activities and interactions. An efficient means for staff to communicate with one another is particularly important when the YSO’s facilities are spread out in large spaces or are dispersed into separate rooms or multiple buildings, and when traveling off-site or during overnight trips.
Written policies and procedures for supervision of children/youth during off-site activities may need to change with each off-site location and should be reviewed with all staff, volunteers, parents, and children/youth when appropriate, with a special emphasis on anything that is unique to the particular setting.
Principle: To ensure that children are not at increased risk of abuse during transportation activities
Many YSOs provide transportation to children and youth – either on a regular or occasional basis. Large YSOs may employ professional transportation companies to transport their students or clients on a daily basis. Other organizations may purchase their own vehicle(s) and hire one or more drivers. Others, by the nature of their services (or size), may rely on supervisors, employees, volunteers or parents to transport children and youth in their personal vehicles. Each of these situations carries the potential for inappropriate contact with the children/youth being transported. Although the larger organizations (e.g., public schools) are subject to regulatory requirements for the screening and hiring of drivers, many YSOs are not (Also see Screening and Hiring section).
YSOs that provide transportation under any circumstances should define in their policies who is responsible for transporting youth to and from regular activities and special events. Some questions to consider: Can children/youth ride with an employee/volunteer? Under what circumstances? What are pick-up procedures at the end of the day or an event? (Codes of Conduct normally prohibit staff and employees from driving children home if parents are late).
YSOs should clearly state transportation arrangements and requirements in writing to parents and other caregivers. Children and youth are, and have been susceptible to sexual maltreatment while being transported as part of an organization’s program. Drivers are also susceptible to false allegations when alone with a child being transported. For these reasons, organizations need to consider their transportation policies. The opportunities for drivers to be alone in a vehicle with a child/youth who is not their own should be minimized.
Principle: To ensure that the use of social media and technology is open, visible and appropriate.
At one time, YSOs needed to worry only about the physical environment within the building(s) where their services were being provided. Today, however, the environment extends beyond the physical and into the realm of virtual space – a world where geographic and physical boundaries are absent. Electronic and social media have, and continue to become, a significant part of everyday life – especially for children and youth. Undoubtedly, additional social media technologies, tools and devices will be developed in the future, and will continue to grow in sophistication and usefulness. In a matter of only a few years, they have profoundly changed the nature of communication forever, and are already a preferred means of communication among children and youth.
The skills learned in social networking – cooperation, collaboration, the management of information, organization, communication, etc. – are key skills for children and youth as they prepare for the totally connected world they not only experience now, but will also have to navigate in future employment and professional work.
Nevertheless, social media can, and has been misused and employed to facilitate communication among youth and between adults and youth in ways that are inappropriate, violate boundaries, and do not reflect the standards of visibility or accountability. The 24/7 nature of social media communications blurs many boundaries as our formerly private spaces become more public. Questions of liability for YSOs cannot be ignored. Thus, efforts at building a safe environment must also take the cyber-environment into account. YSOs should consider adding social media policies or statements to their safe environment frameworks. Suggested elements include the following:
YSOs can and should also partner with parents to ask them for their input and for assistance in monitoring their children’s use of social media to contact YSO staff – when they are at home, on vacation, or even over the summer. By encouraging parents to bring any concerns about technology use, YSO leaders can more quickly become aware of and address issues as they arise.
YSOs should also obtain a signed acknowledgement from employees and volunteers that they have received and read the social media policy; and train staff and volunteers on the YSO’s policies on the appropriate use of social media, and related issues such as cell phones, texting, and cyber-bullying. Some excellent social media policy guidance and information, including sample Code of Conduct language, acknowledgement forms, and resource lists have been developed by the Boston Public Schools, and can be found in the following:
Sample checklists YSOs can use to inventory their Safe Environment capabilities are included in the Resources section and in Appendix 10.
sup_target id=”1″] See American Camp Association recommendations at: (www.acacamps.org/resource-library/accreditation-standards/aca-standards-relate-staff-screening-supervision-training)
2 See National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education: (https://nrckids.org/CFOC/Database/1.1.1)
3 See Massachusetts Afterschool Research Study Report: (http://www.niost.org/pdf/MARSReport.pdf)
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