June 21, 2018

Child Sexual Abuse Prevention: Removing Stigma to Increase Effectiveness

Youth organizations attract some of the most caring (and patient) adults around—at the same time, they attract adults with malicious intent to abuse children. Superintendents, camp directors, religious leaders, and youth services organizations alike are looking for solutions that effectively address child sexual abuse, keep their kids safe, and don’t overburden the organization with unrealistic implementation goals.

How can today’s organizations balance the critical importance of child sexual abuse prevention, while not stretching resources so thin that effectiveness is lost?

In a recent webinar, in2vate’s President Roger Duffield, CPCU, ARM discusses an ironic reality of many prevention strategies—employees and volunteers are screened, trained, and aware, however caring adults often fail to report boundary violations in the grooming or early stages of abuse. Abuse often goes unrecognized and is not uncovered until much trauma has already been caused. Does that mean organizations need to more heavily invest in prevention? Maybe, but the issue might simply be employees’ failure to report early in the process. Barriers to early reporting include:

  • Caring adults who don’t want to label a seemingly “normal” person as a child abuser.
  • The fear of wrongly accusing an innocent adult or damaging a reputation.
  • Unclear protocol for how to handle “gray area” scenarios where an adult may witness an interaction that is harmless but could be part of a grooming process.

Today’s prevention strategies do a good job at holistic prevention in the hiring process, with policies and procedures, and with staff awareness training. However, the barriers above can keep staff paralyzed to act when the time comes. This dilemma lies not in the prevention plan itself, but in employee perceptions.

In response to this dilemma, Mr. Duffield suggests a shift in perception and language that empowers employees to act rather than paralyzing them from taking action. Here are two keys to this shift.

Turn your sexual abuse prevention policies into a holistic boundaries policy.

Child sexual abuse is ultimately an issue of violated boundaries. By increasing the scope of a Sexual Abuse Prevention policy to a more comprehensive Boundaries policy and Code of Conduct, employees do not fear the stigma attached with labeling another employee as an “abuser”. Accountability between employees is held on terms of abiding by the Boundaries policy rather than going on a witch hunt to catch “Groomers” red-handed. This strategy changes an employee’s perspective:

From “identifying and reporting groomers”

To “reporting when an employee is known to communicate with or see a youth outside of the employee’s working hours”

From “recognizing red flags of an abuser desensitizing a child to physical touch”

To “reporting physical touch outside of what is acceptable in the Boundaries Policy”

Employees are more likely to feel comfortable reporting that they saw a counselor with a child on their lap than report that a counselor might be grooming a child.

Correction is as simple as addressing performance

With a comprehensive Boundaries policy in place, employees are aware of their lines and correction is a matter of performance, not accusation. This also facilitates documentation of minor boundary violations. If management notices emerging patterns with the same staff person, action can be taken on the basis of the incidents themselves allowing for the interruption of grooming processes and prevention of abuse.

Organizations can set boundaries that do not allow staff members to engage in grooming behaviors such as giving a child special privileges or gifts. For most caring staff, these innocent behaviors are not part of a grooming process. However, by increasing the territory that a comprehensive Boundaries policy covers, adults who do use these innocent behaviors to groom will be more easily spotted and dealt with—before they abuse.