Self-Policing Abuse Cases Can Lead to Catastrophic Failure by Kimberly Witherspoon

self-policing can lead to catastrophic failure

The Boy Scouts of America (BSA), the Catholic Church, and charitable organizations tied to Jerry Sandusk have been in the spotlight recently for their failure to protect children from sexual abusers.  These nonprofits had one thing in common: all relied on internal self-policing policies, and in each case, the policies failed. 

This failure led to the undermining of the nonprofit’s intended purpose, a multitude of children being irreparably harmed, and a slew of multimillion dollar judgments.  Sadly, proper management oversight could have prevented most of these instances from occurring.

Self-policing allows serious problems to fall through the cracks. The most significant failure of self-policing seems to be a knee-jerk desire to protect the organization rather than the purported victim.  This results in a failure to report allegations of abuse to the authorities, and instead be willfully blind to crimes committed against children. 

Institutional behaviors of denial, irresponsibility, cover-ups and possible criminal behavior seem to thrive in a self-policing organization. Jerry Sandusky’s case is a clear example of this willful blindness.  Tolerating or ignoring abuse to children under the care of charitable organizations that are supposed to nurture and protect them undermines the noble purpose of such entities and thus weakens the organization.

Another technique used to address problems of institutional child sex abuse has been to simply relocate the offender, either intentionally or by mistake.  In the case of the BSA or the Catholic Church, this meant moving offenders to another troop or another parish, and the abuse continued in almost every case.  This obviously leads to more harm and more financial liability. Another less intentional but still unacceptable effect of self-policing is the mistaken or sloppy re-hire of persons terminated for instances of child sex abuse.

A solution to protect both the nonprofits and children they serve is simple: do away with institutionalized irresponsibility, and instead embrace a clear and strident institutional policy specifically directed at stopping child sex abuse.

Instituting such a policy is truly not that difficult. If sexual harassment is so carefully handled in corporations and organizations, why should molestation be any less policed? 

There is no reason that a policy against child sex abuse cannot be instituted when the organization serves children in some capacity.  In fact, it is the intelligent way to handle such a problem.  Failure to do so not only endangers kids, it threatens the bottom line.

There are a number of simple, clear guidelines on this issue that should be mandatory for all nonprofits.  The BSA is slowly coming around, likely as a result of large monetary penalties and negative publicity. In 2008 background checks were instituted for employees, and in 2010 the organization instituted a policy of reporting all suspected abuse to law enforcement agencies. While BSA is slowly catching on, a question arises: why in the world was this BSA policy not in force prior to 2010?

Here are some suggestions to protect not only your nonprofit, but also children that come into contact with your organization:

  1. A strict and straightforward policy against child abuse including child sex abuse should be implemented. It should be located in the employee handbook and the volunteer handbook.  The policy should explain and describe what constitutes child abuse and clearly outline the reporting process. The reporting process should be no-tolerance. The mission of protecting kids should be clear to all employees and volunteers.
  2. A culture of celebrating and protecting children should be developed.  It should be clear to employees, volunteers, parents, and the public that the organization puts childrens’ well being first.
  3. It is critical that all employees and volunteers receive training on this policy prior to interacting with children.
  4. All employees and volunteers should receive annual training on the policy. Most organizations have annual training requirements; this policy should be taught alongside other institutional policies.
  5. This policy should be taught annually to all employees and volunteers, even if they do not interact with children. Those employees or volunteers still need to be familiar with the reporting process and the employee database (described below).
  6. A database should be created to screen employees and volunteers so that no transfers or inadvertent rehires occur after an incidence of child sex abuse.  The BSA has a paper process which has proven to be unsatisfactory for this purpose. All complaints, substantiated or not, should go in the centralized database.  There should be no wiggle room, The BSA and other organizations shy away from doing this because they want to protect the employee from false reports. While this is a noble concern, it certainly doesn’t compare to preventing or tracking child sex abuse.
  7. If the organization interacts with children in any way, a criminal background check of all employees and volunteers should be mandatory prior to them being allowed contact with children. Many states go a step further and require government background checks for school employees and volunteers. Anyone with any accusations or charges related to child abuse or other violent acts should clearly be turned away.
  8. A follow-up criminal history check should be conducted every 5 to 10 years.

These steps, coupled with thoughtful regulation by the Board, will go far in assuring the safety of children and the integrity of your organization.

Ellis Carter is a nonprofit lawyer with Caritas Law Group, P.C. Ellis advises nonprofit and socially responsible businesses on corporate, tax, and fundraising regulations.  Ellis is licensed to practice in Washington and Arizona and advises nonprofits on federal tax and fundraising regulations nationwide. Ellis also advises donors with regard to major gifts. To schedule a consultation with Ellis, call 602-456-0071 or email us through our contact form.

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