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 abuse and neglect before they happen. 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 it proves 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. Child abuse includes any type of maltreatment or neglect against an individual younger than 18 years old. Child abuse may be committed by anyone, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 91% of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone the child knows.
According to the CDC, at least 1 in 7 children have experienced some form of abuse and/or neglect in the past year. Even before the increased risk factors created by the COVID-19 pandemic, 1,840 children died from abuse or neglect within the United States in 2019 alone.2 In addition, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys experience sexual abuse during their childhood.
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, affected children may experience ongoing challenges and missed opportunities due to abuse. For example, exposure to violence in childhood can increase the risk of injury, future violence victimization and perpetration, substance abuse, sexually transmitted infections, delayed brain development, lower educational attainment and limited employment opportunities.2
Actions organization 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 such as child day cares, Head Starts, YMCAs, day camps, or Montessori schools.
There are two important components that should be addressed:
- Child Abuse Prevention Program: Personalized, stand-alone, written abuse-prevention policies and procedures, including but not limited to screening and hiring protocols, a code of conduct with boundary violations listed, transportation and vehicle usage policy, training, reporting, investigation, disciplinary and documentation procedures, and incident response protocols.
- Legally Mandatory Reporting Requirements: If someone within the youth-serving organization suspects that a child is being abused, they should immediately follow their legally mandated reporting procedures.
Written policy is the foundation, but procedures must be enacted and adhered to throughout the organization to be effective prevention. As an example, prospective staff should undergo pre-employment background and reference checks, as well as verification of education, licenses, and certifications in line with internal policies. Screening requirements should also apply to volunteers, third-party contractors and any outside parties that may be on-site during work hours.
Additionally, a code of conduct helps identify what is acceptable and expected of all individuals in terms of behavior, risk, sensitivity to the appearance of impropriety, and interpersonal communication with children, along with reporting requirements. All employees and volunteers should be required to read and sign the code of conduct to acknowledge receipt of the agreement. All reports must be taken seriously, action should be taken, and documentation must be securely maintained.
Consistent staff training is key to preventing and identifying child abuse. This training should include:
- An overview of the organization’s child abuse prevention program
- Reporting strategies
- Guidance to identify abuse indicators and symptoms
- Internal reporting workflows
- Reporting resolution and timelines
- Specialized training for assigned roles, which will vary by position
Furthermore, physical facilities can be modified or constructed in ways that help reduce opportunities for abuse.
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 following3:
- 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 include3:
- 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, MyLossControlServices.com:
- Main components of an abuse, neglect, and exploitation prevention program : A high-level overview addressing the framework for an effective abuse, neglect and exploitation prevention and detection program. Every youth-serving organization must develop and implement their own specific policies that ensure a safe environment and complies with all state and federal statutory requirements.
- Background screening: IntelliCorp’s employment verification services (criminal, prior work history, education) allow employers to screen applicants to help minimize risk and determine the quality of new hires. A discounted background screening package is available for Nationwide members.
- Smarter Adults – Safer Children (SASC) Program: This program is intended to provide foundational resources, model policies, procedures, and information to be used by Program Administrators to build, modify, or strengthen their individual abuse-prevention programs.
- in2Vate – Additional Resources: In addition to the resources included in the SASC interactive manual, Nationwide has secured discounted pricing with in2vate to provide online staff training, attorney-led policy reviews, and other critical support services to aid organizations.
- 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, contact your Nationwide Loss Control Services associate or email us at email@example.com.
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.