Pennsylvania Big Brothers Big Sisters:
Preventing Childhood Abuse in Youth Organizations
Nobody likes to have to consider the topic of child sexual abuse but, as more reports come out, we are forced to confront it.
Looking away is not an option.
UPDATE: HB 963 to extend the statute of limitations on sexual abuse
Unfortunately, studies have shown that children are far more likely to be the victim of abuse than adults. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that between one in four girls and one in 13 boys will be abused before they reach the age of 18.
Children today face enough challenges as they grow without having to worry about being abused by the very people charged with looking after their welfare.
Whether it’s in a religious, sporting, educational or youth setting, child abuse should not be tolerated by anyone.
Learning about it, confronting it, and calling it out is the first step to putting a stop to it.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of America helps establish one-on-one mentoring between adult “Bigs” and their “Littles.” By the nature of Big Brother Big Sister programs, much of the “Big” and “Little” one-on-one contact is unsupervised. Sadly, child predators often infiltrate youth-serving organizations like the Big Brothers Big Sisters that provide unmonitored contact with children. Child sexual abuse is an inherent risk in youth-serving programs for this reason.
Failure to Protect Children
By the 1970s, the Big Brothers Big Sisters knew of the risk of sexual abuse and began to study child sex abuse within the organization. In fact, Big Brothers Big Sisters has acknowledged for decades that “Littles” are at high risk of abuse.
Despite Big Brothers Big Sisters awareness of this problem, not until recently did the organization publicly acknowledge the sexual abuse risk children faced as “Littles.” Also, if Big Brothers Big Sisters did not adequately screen a “Big” with a history of sexual misconduct or other red flags, the organization can be liable for abuse suffered by a “Little.”
Who is most at risk of child sexual abuse?
In approximately six out of 10 cases of child sexual abuse, the perpetrator is known to the child but they are not related.
There are certain places where predators have easy access to their victims – and if policies and procedures in these organizations do not protect children adequately, the risks can be severe.
Perpetrators are known to “groom” their victims in roughly half of all cases of child sexual abuse, often with the unwitting assistance of the institutions that employ them.
The subjects of abuse in educational establishments and religious organizations are dealt with elsewhere but one of the other main locations for child abuse in North America is in youth organizations.
Even some organizations that set out to help protect young people are guilty of fostering environments where sexual abuse can thrive.
This is an uncomfortable truth that parents are increasingly having to face around the world.
Big Brothers Big Sisters: What is the national safety record?
Big Brothers Big Sisters is an organization that set out to protect young people when it was founded in 1904.
The organization is known for its mentoring network, whereby children aged five and above (“Littles”) are partnered with adult volunteers in their community (“Bigs”). Its stated goal is to help children develop through a system of mentors and confidants.
While this is an admirable goal, it is easy to see how sexual predators could gain access to their victims if the organization is not completely switched on with its vetting process.
After all, many of the “grooming behaviors” practiced by sexual predators (e.g. hosting sleepovers) are similar to normal adult and child interactions and there is a high degree of trust placed in the adults who act as mentors.
Awareness in the organization that problems exist
The Big Brother Big Sister organization claims the following:
“Nationally, over our organization’s history, reports of child sexual abuse in a local Big Brothers Big Sisters program have been much lower than the rate of child sexual abuse in our society — and lower than the rate of sexual abuse identified in all youth-serving organizations across the U.S.”
However, more cases have come to light recently, dating as far back as the 1980s. What is perhaps even more concerning is that the leadership of the organization was aware that problems existed but did little to investigate them. Worse, it may have attempted to cover them up, thereby facilitating further abuse.
It turns out that the vetting and supervisory processes for staff and volunteers were not as stringent as they should have been, allowing some sexual predators easy access to their victims.
For whatever reason – lack of funding, laziness, or naivety – this is unacceptable for an organization that parents entrust their children to and which purports to facilitate safe interactions between adults and children.
The organization has taken steps recently to correct the vetting and supervisory aspects within the organization but victims are still coming forward.
How to prevent sexual abuse in youth organizations
Any youth organization that is serious about preventing sexual abuse needs to view it as the crime that it is, be vigilant, and introduce the right measures to monitor the staff and volunteers in its charge.
Parents and employers need to understand more about the grooming process and children also need to be educated about what might constitute abuse and what personal boundaries are.
Specific steps that youth organizations can take to help prevent abuse include the following:
For any child-facing positions, background checks (including criminal records and actually calling previous employers to check the reason for leaving) are essential.
This should include other teens and minors as many cases of child abuse are perpetrated by other minors.
Clean background checks do not preclude the possibility of sexual abuse but it should at least mean that known offenders are not placed in a position where they can cause further harm.
Introduce strict codes of conduct
Youth-serving organizations must be clear about what constitutes positive interactions between adults and youth and what are harmful ones.
Introduce employees to your code of conduct and have them sign off annually.
Most incidents of child sexual abuse happen between one adult and a minor, so it’s a good policy to ensure that two adults are always present (no one-on-one interactions), to prohibit meetings outside of the organization’s direct environment, and to impose clear rules about permitted physical contact.
Closely monitor staff/volunteer behavior
Staff and volunteers must adhere to the strict codes of conduct you introduce and rules must be enforced. This will require some degree of monitoring to check for violations of conduct and to report via a clear chain of command.
Youth organizations should protect themselves by documenting the steps taken to monitor their people and to note where guidelines have not been followed and inappropriate behavior has been discovered e.g. meeting out of hours, giving gifts, one-on-one meetings, etc.
Unscheduled observations of employees and volunteers as they engage with youth members should be part of any supervisory role.
Investigate and discipline undesirable behavior
Human resources must be prepared to look into instances where guidelines have been breached and, if necessary, take disciplinary action.
However, for serious breaches or in cases of clear grooming behavior, law enforcement or child protection services may need to be notified to investigate the allegations or suspicions.
Internal investigations may harm the legal process so it’s best to:
- Create a series of policies for investigating reports with the collaboration of a lawyer
- Clearly define appropriate, inappropriate, and harmful behaviors
- Define which violations are investigated internally and which should involve the authorities
- Be clear on the confidentiality and community/press notification responsibilities of your organization
- Introduce policies for how to handle a staff member/volunteer while they are under investigation for sexual abuse
- Nominate a particular person to report instances of child abuse to the authorities
- Document all reports and investigations
Create environments that deter abuse
Youth organizations can introduce changes to their environment that help prevent abuse, such as:
- Installing security cameras in areas that may be hidden from view
- Making sure there are clear lines of sight at all times
- Making lighting brighter
- Locking closets/storerooms
- Having open-door policies
- Fitting windows into all doors
- Ensuring safety in toilets, showers, and changing rooms
Provide ongoing training
Ongoing (at least annual) training for employees, volunteers, and youth members about sexual abuse is a key component to preventing it.
Include information about:
- Sexual grooming and warning signs of child sexual abuse
- Definitions of appropriate and inappropriate conduct
- Organizational policies regarding child sexual abuse prevention
- How to report instances of abuse
Prevent child abuse in youth organizations: report it!
Sexual abuse should never be downplayed, ignored, or addressed in-house by an organization. It is a crime and it needs to be treated as such.
Violations of policy or concerns of child abuse should be reported immediately to the appropriate staff member. For more serious instances or where there is proof of abuse, seek the help of a local child abuse lawyer or report directly to local law enforcement.
Remember, organizations that attempt to cover up child abuse or harbor abusers can themselves be held accountable by law.
If you or a loved one was a victim of sexual abuse within the Big Brothers Big Sisters, call us to schedule a consultation at 877-214-3238, or use our easy online scheduling form.
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