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Strategies for organizations to prevent child abuse

March 4, 2024

Youth organizations strive to create a safe environment for children, employees, and volunteers so that children can grow, learn, and have fun. The best way to provide a positive setting and protect children from abuse is to prevent neglect and abuse from ever happening. Organizations also need to put practices in place to protect themselves, their employees, and volunteers from allegations of child abuse. A single allegation of child abuse, whether true or not, can devastate an organization.

Child abuse and neglect in all forms – physical, emotional, sexual as well as online sexual exploitation – should be combatted. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) defines child abuse and neglect as, at a minimum:

  • “Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker, which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or
  • An act or failure to act which presents imminent risk or serious harm.”1

Child abuse is a serious public health concern that can have lasting impacts on victims’ health and overall well-being. Data underscores just how widespread this problem is2:

  • It’s estimated that 600,000 children experienced neglect or abuse in 2021 (the most recent year statistics are available).
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 1 in 7 children have experienced some form of abuse and/or neglect in the past year.
  • According to the National Children’s Alliance, approximately 1,820 children – nearly five children per day – died from abuse in 2021.
  • 91% of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone the child knows.
  • 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys experience sexual abuse during their childhood.

Additionally, the youngest children are abused at the highest rates. Reports of abuse occurred at a rate of 25.3 per 1,000 for children younger than 1, and two-thirds of reported fatalities were younger than 3.

Abused children may suffer not only from immediate physical injuries such as cuts, bruises or broken bones, but they may also suffer from long-term emotional and psychological problems such as impaired social-emotional skills or anxiety. If left untreated, exposure to violence in childhood can increase the risk of injury, future violence victimization and perpetration, substance abuse, sexually transmitted infections, delayed brain development, and lower educational attainment.3

Actions organizations can take

Establishing strong protocols to prevent, detect and respond to abuse, along with conducting regular program reviews are critical steps for youth-serving organizations. Abuse can take place both on-site and off-site and should be considered when developing protocols for organizations that work with children.

Most organizations have a written zero-tolerance abuse policy, compliant with state mandated reporting laws.  To adequately protect the children they support, it’s important for organizations to establish strong protocols that are specific to their programs to help prevent, detect, and respond to abuse. To help improve the effectiveness of abuse prevention efforts, organizations can consider these actions:

  • Move Beyond a Zero Tolerance Policy: Key elements to an Abuse Prevention Program involve the following elements:
    • Awareness: Educating children, parents, staff, and volunteers about the signs, risks, and consequences of child abuse and how to report it.
    • Prevention: Providing strategies and resources to prevent child abuse from occurring, such as screening, training, policies, and protocols.
    • Intervention: Responding, investigating, and reporting child abuse allegations and disclosures promptly and appropriately and providing support and referrals to victims and families.
    • Evaluation: Measuring the effectiveness and impact of the child abuse prevention program and making improvements as needed. This becomes crucial following an incident.
  • Develop Mandated AND Internal Reporting Protocols: If anyone within the organization suspects that a child is being abused, they should immediately follow their legally mandated reporting protocols. In addition, organizations should establish their own internal reporting protocols. These protocols should be clearly outlined within the abuse policy and visibly posted within the organization. By doing so, incidents can be investigated internally, leading to better prevention of future occurrences.
  • Make the Call – The Power of Reference Checks: While completing criminal background checks is standard practice for employee screening and selection, it’s essential to recognize their limitations. Notably, such checks often fail to identify most sexual offenders due to their prior offenses going undetected. Studies have found that many sex offenders were found to have committed sexual offenses prior to being caught or arrested.4

Speaking with references offers objective insights into a candidate’s suitability for a role. It serves as a safety net, catching signs of incompatibility between the individual and the organization. Reference checks unveil details about the applicant’s work history, volunteer experience, education, and character traits. An inability to provide credible references warrants further investigation.

  • Live the Code of Conduct: Many organizations establish a basic code of conduct that defines expected behaviors and responsibility of staff, volunteers, and visitors. Clear boundary violations must be listed by defining guidelines for appropriate and inappropriate actions and behaviors when interacting with vulnerable populations like children.

Having regular dialogue and understanding how these ‘boundary violations’ play out in day-to-day interactions make a difference. When consistently followed, it fosters a culture of vigilance and accountability within the organization.

Abusers are usually identified after they break the rules. Every report, even minor policy violations, demands serious attention. Swift action must follow, and meticulous documentation should be securely maintained.

  • Effective Training is Powerful: While state-specific mandated reporting training is imperative, a strong abuse-prevention training program should include an overview of the organization’s Abuse Prevention Program, internal reporting strategies, investigation, and resolution procedures. Other important elements are training on how to recognize and respond to abuse risks from grooming, peer-on-peer abuse, one-on-one interactions, social media, and proper consent.

Potential warning signs of abuse

Organizations that work with children should be well-versed in the warning signs of child abuse. Signs that may indicate a child is being abused may include a combination of the following4:

  • Withdrawal from friends or usual activities
  • Behavioral changes, such as aggression, anger, hostility, hyperactivity, or poor academic performance
  • Depression, anxiety, unusual fears, or a sudden loss of self-confidence
  • Signs of minimal adult supervision (e.g., poor hygiene, weight loss or gain, and a lack of food or essential supplies)
  • Frequent absences from school or services
  • Attempts to run away or reluctance to return home
  • Rebellious or defiant behavior
  • Self-harm or suicide attempts

Some parental behavior may present warning signs of abuse. These include4:

  • Showing little concern for the child
  • Failing to recognize the child’s physical or emotional distress
  • Blaming the child for their problems
  • Consistently belittling or berating the child
  • Using harsh or violent forms of physical discipline
  • Limiting the child’s contact with others
  • Offering conflicting or unconvincing explanations for the child’s injuries

Some warning signs of abuse within the organization’s walls:

  • Suspicious or unexplained injuries to children during care
  • Inconsistent staff explanations
  • Unusual behaviors around certain staff members
  • Preferential treatment or special privileges provided

Specific signs and symptoms can vary depending on the type of abuse. For instance, signs of emotional abuse may be different than those of sexual abuse. It is also important to remember if boundary violations are reported or if there are warning signs, it does not necessarily mean abuse is occurring. However, it does mean an organization’s abuse protocols may need to be triggered and must be taken seriously.

Resources to share

To assist Nationwide’s youth-serving organizations, here is a list of resources, programs, and product/service discounts found on our loss control website, (Customer log in for website required for some resources):

iLearningEngines’ Smarter Adults–Safer Children (SASC) Program:

  • This program offers essential resources, model policies, and procedures for program administrators. It equips them to create, adapt, or enhance their abuse-prevention programs. Sample policies and documents cover areas such as the Code of Conduct, Boundary Violation, Reporting of Abuse, Disciplinary Procedures, Transportation, Reference Questions and more. Nationwide customers can sign in to and learn more about this free program on the Programs page.
  • In addition to the resources included in the SASC interactive manual, Nationwide has secured discounted pricing with iLearningEngines to provide online training, attorney-led policy reviews, employee protection line, and other critical support services to aid organizations.

Main components of an abuse, neglect, and exploitation prevention program (PDF):

  • A high-level overview addressing (the framework for) an effective abuse, neglect and exploitation prevention and detection program.

Background screening (PDF):

  • Employment verification services (criminal, prior work history, education); allow employers to screen applicants to help minimize risk and determine the quality of new hires.

My Risk Management Plan:

  • A user-friendly tool to help identify risks to human service organizations and develop basic risk-control management plans to address their unique needs. For more information or access, Nationwide customers can contact a Loss Control Services associate or email us at

Everyone can play a role in supporting children and families to prevent child abuse and neglect. In addition to Nationwide’s resources above, there are more services available to support these initiatives at the Children’s Bureau within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.