APRIL IS NATIONAL CHILD ABUSE PREVENTION MONTH! A good reminder to ask the question: Is your church, ministry, or nonprofit organization doing enough to protect the youth entrusted to your care? If you are not sure, your organization may be taking a significant risk if it doesn’t have the proper policies and practices in place. “That would never happen here” you might say, but here is a reality check: According to the Church Law & Tax Report, sexual abuse of a minor is the #1 reason churches end up in court! Not only would it be devastating for a child to be harmed while under your care, your organization could be subject to significant civil liability. In addition, a member of your staff may face criminal prosecution for failing to report a reasonable suspicion of child abuse if that staff member is considered a “mandated reporter” under California law! It would be hard for any organization to survive after encountering such a horrible incident. Fortunately, there are steps your organization can take to both reduce the risk of child abuse, and to make sure it is ready to properly handle such an incident if one should occur. They are as follows:
SCREEN VOLUNTEERS AND EMPLOYEES – At a minimum, you should screen volunteers and employees by requiring them to complete an application, checking their references, interviewing them, and by conducting a criminal background check. Criminal background checks often do not reveal whether one has been convicted for child abuse, which demonstrates the importance of the application and checking of references. Requiring a waiting period, such as six months before beginning service, may also prevent a potential child abuser from easy access to minors. Even though you may feel like you “know” your staff, there is no typical profile of a child abuser, so don’t let your organization fall prey to a wolf in sheep’s clothing!
IMPLEMENT POLICIES FOR YOUTH WORKERS – Having an operations manual for those who may come into contact with the youth of your organization is crucial. Such a policy should instruct your workers on important guidelines and procedures, such as the “two-adult rule,” check-in/out procedures, staff to youth ratios, bathroom protocols, teenage workers, and how to respond to and investigate a suspicion of abuse properly. It is important that staff be adequately supervised by the organization to prevent a claim for negligent supervision.
TRAIN – Training is important because policies will not be helpful in preventing abuse if your workers do not know how to implement them. You cannot expect that merely having a written policy will be enough. There are training programs that will train your staff and keep track of their progress. Staff should be trained often to ensure they are adequately prepared for preventing and responding to child abuse.
REPORT – Under California’s Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act (CANRA), a mandated reporter’s failure to immediately report a reasonable suspicion of child abuse to the proper authorities may be guilty of a misdemeanor! Are you a mandated reporter? From California’s long list includes clergy (broadly defined), and administrators or employees of youth organizations/recreation programs. So if you are a pastor at your church, you are probably a mandated reporter! California also requires that employers provide their mandated reporter employees, as a prerequisite to employment, a form to sign that explains to the person that he or she is a mandated reporter and that he or she understands the applicable law, among other requirements. See Cal. Penal Code §11166.5(a).
There is no way to completely eliminate the risk of child abuse. However, your organization should still do what it can to try and prevent or adequately respond to it. Failure to take reasonable steps may result in significant liability to the organization, especially for the negligent hiring, supervision, or retention of a volunteer or staff member. When it comes to child abuse prevention, Benjamin Franklin’s saying definitely rings true: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Please note that this list of steps is not exhaustive and not custom-tailored to the needs of your organization. You should consult an attorney in your state familiar with child abuse prevention practices before implementing such policies to ensure they are drafted and applied properly. You can find more information on California mandated reporters at www.mandatedreporterca.com.
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