Incidents like the high-profile sexual abuse allegations at Penn State and Syracuse University should serve as catalysts for caregivers and parents to assess exactly what safeguards are in place to screen out sexual predators and other abusers in their own community organizations, schools, daycare facilities and churches.
Jill’s House, which I have the privilege of leading, is an overnight center for children, ages 6 to 17, with intellectual disabilities in the Washington, DC, area. We work with the group most likely to be sexually abused – children with intellectual disabilities – and we keep them for long periods of time, usually 24 to 48 hours to give weary families a break from the rigors of caregiving. In light of the extreme vulnerability of thechildren we serve, installing safeguards to protect our children has been our top priority.
Keeping kids safe is a noble goal. But the question for every organization serving young people is how do you do it?
First and foremost, organizations that serve children must recognize that child abusers look for jobs that will afford them easy access to kids. This puts immense pressure on organizations to ensure the hiring process is thorough and challenging. With the rise of computerized databases and rapid fingerprint-based checks, ensuring that new hires have not been convicted of a crime is easier than ever. Too many organizations content themselves with quick and easy background check services based exclusively on Social Security numbers (SSN). At Jill’s House, our background check system involves checking the applicant’s fingerprints against the FBI’s database and a separate check by Child Protective Services.
Along the same lines, many organizations skip references. To keep kids safe, youth-serving organizations must require that applicants provide references that have known them for a long time in a professional setting. Then the organizations must make the time to contact each reference and ask questions that will provide insight into the extent to which the reference finds the individual trustworthy.
Once hired, training and accountability practices such as incident investigation, monitoring and other policies serve as further barriers to abuse. Jill’s House has cameras running throughout the building, allowing us to retrieve footage should any incidents occur. While cameras themselves only allow for review of historical incidents, their presence serves to deter potential abusers. Additionally, our staff members are trained to avoid one-on-one situations with children except where the child’s privacy necessitates it.
But it isn’t enough for organizations to do their part. Paid and volunteer caregivers need to be vigilant as well.
Caregivers can aid in the fight against abuse in several ways, including watching for signs of abuse and reporting abuse to appropriate authorities. Caregivers can also hold organizations accountable for implementing and enforcing strong policies. As a caregiver, you are uniquely positioned to see potential threats and loopholes that an abuser could use to gain access to the children in your care. Be quick to alert your organization to those threats. Finally, enthusiastically support policies and practices that your employer implements to ensure safety.
Ultimately, parents remain the best advocates for the protection of their own children.
After the Penn State story hit the news, I read the grim grand jury report. The harrowing incidents it outlined made me shutter for my own children, and I recognized – to my shame – that I had never informed my own children (7, 5, 3, and 2) about the issues involved. I gathered my older ones and we discussed the kinds of touching that other people are – and are not – allowed to do, and how to respond if someone is touching inappropriately. (Their response? “Really, Daddy? We’re allowed to yell ‘No’ that loud?”) Many children we serve have limited verbal skills, but tools such aspicture exchange communication systems (PECS) and other visual tools can allow a child to inform trusted adults of inappropriate behavior.
Parents must also ask questions. Despite allegations of sexual abuse splashed across the headlines, our staff has fielded no questions or concerns from any of the nearly 200 families that we serve. Perhaps it is because they have complete confidence in Jill’s House and the loving care that we provide; or perhaps it is because they are not focused on the ways that ill-intentioned adults gain access to their children. A few inquiries from parents can quickly focus a lax organization on improving its safeguards.
If it is true that the average child predator molests 117 children before being caught (Abel, 1985), those who aim to harm our children are looking for easy opportunities. Vigilance from organizations, caregivers and parents can make it difficult enough that the inconvenience sends would-be abusers on their way. At Jill’s House, we continue to pray for the victims of child abuse, wherever it happens. And we take all practical steps to ensure that, when parents entrust us with their precious children for a day or a weekend, we faithfully discharge our duty to care and protect.