Child protection resource

Our congregation here in Cohasset, Mass., operates a preschool. The school is currently updating its child protection policy. As part of their research, the school’s governing board found the YMCA’s Child Abuse Prevention Policies.

If you deal with child safety issues, the whole policy is worth reading. But I especially appreciated three parts of this policy document.

1. First, they offer guidance on what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate physical interactions. Appropriate physical interactions include:

  • Side hugs
  • Shoulder-to-shoulder…hugs
  • Pats on the shoulder or back
  • Handshakes
  • High-fives and hand slapping
  • Verbal praise
  • Pats on the head when culturally appropriate
  • Touching hands, shoulders, and arms
  • Arms around shoulders
  • Holding hands (with young children in escorting situations)

Personally, I’d be more restrictive than this list— e.g., I’d be very reluctant to pat a child on the head, or touch shoulders. And I’d only put arms around shoulders in extreme situations, e.g., when comforting a crying child. Nevertheless, I think this is a good summary. I’ll let you look at the actual document to see what constitutes inappropriate touch. (No sitting on laps! No piggyback rides!)

2. Also worth looking at is the YMCA’s straightforward summary of appropriate electronic communications. No private messaging with a Facebook “friend” who is under age! No “friending” under age people on any social media!

3. Third, I really appreciated their policy on “Managing the risk when one staff member is alone with one youth.” We have policies where you should never be alone one-on-one with a legal minor. And there are always times when it seems necessary, e.g., when talking about a young person about behavior issues. Straightforward guidance — if you have to have a one-on-one, do so in a public place where you are in full view of others (I’ve done this where I made sure my supervisor was nearby, and deliberately watching). If you have to meet in a room, leave the door open. If a young person discloses abuse, etc., document it immediately.

A final comment: What I especially like about this document is that it answers just about all the questions I’ve ever gotten from volunteers and paid staff when I’ve done training in child abuse prevention policies.

An interesting development

According to a recent news article, Vermont, Maine, and Maryland have removed time limits for law suits about sex crimes. Massachusetts, Michigan, and Rhode Island are currently considering such legislation.

What this means is that if you were abused by someone as a child in these three states, you have the rest of your life to sue them for damages. This legislation is in response to the fact that many people repress childhood sexual abuse until mid-life; but prior to this legislation, if you recalled childhood sexual abuse the statute of limitations would have ended and you’d be without legal recourse.

So who’s going to be financially vulnerable as a result of this legislation? Any individual who committed sexual abuse, obviously. But also any institution that harbored sexual abusers. The Roman Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America are the two best known such institutions, but there are likely thousands of other institutions that can be held accountable for inadequately protecting children from sexual abuse. This could include local religious organizations, summer camps, and a wide variety of organizations that sponsor youth programs. (Ultimately, I hope this will include sports organizations — I’ve written elsewhere about how sports teams have gotten an easy pass on preventing child abuse, and it’s time we started holding them accountable too.)

Now, I’m not a lawyer, and I’m not in the least qualified to give legal advice. But if I were part of an institution where I had good reason to believe there was a history of covering up or glossing over sexual abuse committed in their programs — whether by volunteers, staff, or clergy — I’d be worried right now. I’d be especially worried if my institution owned substantial assets, such as an endowment or real estate, that would make them an attractive target for a law suit.

I’d also say that anyone who runs any kind of youth program should be super focused on abuse prevention right now. If I were part of a youth program that got sued under these new laws, I’d want to be able to say that my youth program had reformed and was following state-of-the-art child protection policies and procedures.

The next frontier

We all know about the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic church. It continues to get a lot of press, to the point where if you say “child sexual abuse” a lot of people immediately think “Catholic church.” Which isn’t all that fair. While the Catholic sex abuse crisis has gotten the most publicity (and honestly, it deserves all the publicity it has gotten), it’s pretty clear that other institutions have their own sex abuse crises. The Boy Scouts come to mind, again because they’ve gotten a lot of publicity. But I’m willing to bet that the sexual abuse crisis goes beyond religion and scouting….

I suspect the next big frontier for the revelation of sexual abuse could be in sports. I’ve been thinking about this as I read about what’s happening in India. Olympic medalists have accused a politically-connected wrestling coach with child sexual abuse. There’s the usual denial and obfuscation. Eventually the coach has to step down from his coaching duties, but he doesn’t get arrested or prosecuted. The Olympic medalists engage in public protests, and the government arrests them instead of the former coach.

I’m willing to bet that school and youth sports provides many opportunities for sexual predators on the prowl. Many school sports programs have little accountability to anyone outside of the tight little world of sports — too often, coaches are essentially free from oversight by school administrators, and no one else is trying to hold them accountable. Some youth sports leagues might have even less accountability. When you hear coaches screaming and swearing at the kids during practices, you begin to wonder. If I acted like that towards kids in a church program, I’d lose my job — so if coaches can get away with that kind of abusive behavior, I have to wonder.

Sports is even more sacrosanct than religion. I’m not expecting any movement towards reform to come from sporting organizations (remember how everyone covered for Larry Nasser?). We might wish that more athletes blow the whistle, as is happening in India — but look at the price they’re paying.

I now believe the best solution is uniform child protection regulations that cover all youth programs, like California’s Assembly Bill 506, enacted in 2022. AB506 has some major problems — honestly, it’s not a well-written law — but the fact that it applies to all youth programs is really important. Sports programs have to comply, along with churches and schools. Of course, laws like AB506 still doesn’t address sexual abuse of persons over age 18. But it’s a start, a step in the right direction.