Children and vulnerable adults (i.e., adults with disabilities who need assistance with self-care) face unique threats because of their inability to recognize and protect themselves from danger. Organizations that have direct or even indirect contact with children or vulnerable adults should create and adopt a child protection policy and related training program to better safeguard these individuals. Such a policy fosters a child-centered culture of awareness and will help prevent instances of abuse and, consequently, liability to the organization. In fact, many insurance companies require child-centered organizations to demonstrate that they’ve critically evaluated and implemented appropriate policies to keep children and vulnerable adults safe.
1. Prevention Through Background Checks
The sad truth is that predators seek out opportunities to have contact with children and can appear to have their best interests at heart. One of the most important and effective ways to protect children and vulnerable adults is to conduct background checks on all employees and volunteers who may have contact with these individuals. Background checks should include searching local and state-run registries that maintain records on sex and violent offenders and recognized national registries, such as Family Watchdog. Additionally, companies must ensure that prospective employees and volunteers have signed written consents to the background check and also been advised of their rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Your policy additionally should address how often these background checks will be updated and ensure that your employees and volunteers are aware of these periodic updates. If your organization has independent contractors or vendors who may have contact with children and vulnerable adults, then require those entities to certify that they have run background checks on their own employees and volunteers.
2. Safe Contact and Supervision
To further create a culture of awareness and prevention, set forth clear expectations for the contact that employees and volunteers have with children and vulnerable adults. This includes policies on, among other things, appropriate physical contact with a child, who may accompany children to the restroom, and who should be present at events and overnights. However, children face many more threats than predatory adults. For example, develop policies and provide training regarding bullying and abuse by other children. You also might need to consider addressing when and what types of food can be given to a child due to concerns about food allergies. Retail stores that offer food samples should require that an adult be with the child and approve of the child receiving a sample.
If employees and volunteers are going to be charged with the care of children, set forth the appropriate child-adult ratio for events, and consider whether it is appropriate to have certain gender ratios. Also, be sure to obtain appropriate releases from participating children’s parents or guardians detailing medical, allergy or dietary concerns and permitting the organization to administer medical attention in the event of an emergency.
3. Reporting and Responding
All child protection policies should outline clear reporting and responding procedures. Most states have laws that require everyone to report instances of suspected child abuse or neglect to a governmental child protective services agency and also require reporting suspected abuse or exploitation of vulnerable adults to an adult protection services agency. In many states, it is a criminal violation to neglect a statutory duty to report. Your policy should clearly define what constitutes abuse, neglect or exploitation triggering the duty to report directly to a governmental agency with minimal to no involvement (which might be dictated by state law) from a designated organization official. Outline the actions personnel should take in the interim to protect the child or vulnerable adult as well as the measures they should take to ensure that the reporting remains confidential and does not interfere with the agency’s investigation. Conduct that does not constitute abuse, neglect, or exploitation may nonetheless violate the organization’s child protection policy. Consequently, it is critical that personnel can differentiate suspected abuse under state law from mere violations of the policy and understand their duties in responding to and reporting both. Companies should develop internal reporting guidelines for suspected violations of the policy and implement procedures for investigating and resolving such allegations. These guidelines should be comprehensive enough to cover reporting and resolution procedures for allegations against every individual affiliated with the organization, including officers and/or high-level managers.
Child protection policies should separately address what constitutes child pornography as defined by relevant law and how employees and volunteers should report and treat suspected child pornography. In general, suspected child pornography never should be shared with or forwarded to others in the organization, even superiors. The person who reasonably believes an image, document or recording constitutes child pornography should immediately report it to a local police department.
4. Training on the Policy
A well-written child protection policy is only useful if it is understood and followed by your personnel. Include training on the policy in your organization’s orientation and host periodic refresher trainings so it is clear that child protection is a central focus of the organization’s culture. Professionally developed, computerized abuse awareness and prevention training modules are available for organizations to include in training programs. As with other important policies, provide a copy to your employees and volunteers and have them sign an acknowledgement of receipt. Consider requiring employees and volunteers to reread and recertify their compliance on a regular interval.
5. Compliance and Updates
Organizations should designate one employee or manager as the compliance officer responsible for ensuring that the child protection policy is implemented and followed. Conducting periodic internal audits to assess whether the policy is being followed and consistent with current law is critical to ensuring that the organization stays on track. This vigilance also will help the organization determine if the policy needs to be updated or revised. State and federal reporting, child abuse and child pornography laws are periodically amended, and best practices may evolve over time. As a result, organizations should have a policy in place specifying how often the child protection policy should be reviewed, reevaluated and updated.
Where children and vulnerable adults are at the heart of an institution’s mission and activities, protection of those constituents susceptible to abuse and mistreatment must be a priority—both as a matter of community commitment and as risk avoidance. Businesses that have child guests also have strong interests in protecting children and minimizing risks inherent in having children on the premises. Each organization needs to assess its unique needs and services and take those into account in designing an appropriate child protection policy to best protect its visitors. Implementing a generic child protection policy, or simply adopting another entity’s policy, is not likely to be effective, achieve desired outcomes or sufficiently minimize risks.
Mary Jane Bennett, Vice President of Human Resources and Safety & Security — The Indianapolis Zoological Society